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A mock grocery store in Chapel Hill studies how graphic health labels change the way people buy food

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Photo Courtesy of Allison Lazard
The UNC Mini Mart, a two-aisle fake convenience store in Chapel Hill, offers a selection of more than 300 different foods, drinks, and items commonly found in grocery stores.

While the UNC Mini Mart in Chapel Hill may look like any other convenience store, it’s actually part of a research space that studies how food warning labels impact shopping patterns.

The mock store, which carries more than 300 food and drink products commonly found at grocery stores, has hosted two research studies since it debuted four years ago. Its most recent project focused on whether the presence of graphic health warning labels on food and drink would lessen the likelihood of someone purchasing them.

Researchers invited parents and their children to the store to purchase groceries as they normally would, and divided the study’s more than 300 participants into two groups that featured products with warning labels and ones without. Throughout the two-aisle store, products displayed photos of diseased hearts if they are likely to contribute to heart damage, in addition to images of gangrenous feet on products shown to potentially increase the likelihood of Type 2 diabetes.

The study showed a 17% decrease in parents picking up sugared, sweetened beverages for their kids that had warning labels on them, according to Marissa Hall, an assistant professor at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health and one of the project’s researchers.

“The Mini Mart really helped us understand what those purchases looked like in a more realistic environment when parents were actually spending their own money on these drinks, and so there was this real [stake] attached to what they were deciding in a store,” she said.

Researchers said future studies planned for this year hope to expand research to focus on health warning labels, along with products and substances that other studies have indicated can cause short and long-term health damages.

“We really hope the store will be used in many more studies to come,” Hall said.

Heidi Pérez-Moreno is a daily news intern with WUNC for the spring 2023 semester. She is currently a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, where she is studying journalism.
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