The use of credit and debit cards has been on the rise in the past decade—driven by the development of online shopping, mobile payment options and, recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. In turn, the use of cash as the primary payment method has fallen. A downside of paying with cards, rather than cash, is that consumers tend to spend more and make more unplanned and impulse purchases. The use of cards may nudge shoppers toward impulsive purchases of less healthy foods and beverages than when paying with cash. Therefore, a move away from cash may have negative effects on diet quality and, in turn, health outcomes.
Researchers from USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS) used USDA’s National Household Food Acquisition and Purchase Survey (FoodAPS) data to investigate the effect of different methods of payment (cash versus card) on the share of healthy items purchased at restaurants, coffee shops, and other eating places (referred to as food away from home) and at grocery stores, supercenters, and other food retailers (referred to as food at home). FoodAPS is a nationally representative survey of U.S. households that collected detailed information on the foods and drinks purchased by all household members over 1 week. This information includes nutritional information and the amount paid for each item, along with the method of payment. FoodAPS data predate the COVID-19 pandemic and do not reflect its impacts on food supply chains and food demand.
To examine the share of healthy items purchased at each food event or transaction, the researchers employed the criteria in the Guiding Stars Program. The program rates the nutritional quality of food and beverages based on “nutrients to limit” (trans fatty acid, saturated fat, cholesterol, added sugars, and added sodium) and “nutrients to encourage” (dietary fiber, vitamins and minerals, and whole grains). Nutrients to limit earn negative points, while nutrients to encourage earn positive points. Each purchase by FoodAPS respondents was assigned a score based on these criteria. “Healthy” items were those with overall positive scores.
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