Trying to eat well is tough. Rebecca Blithe investigates which supermarket makes it the most difficult to stick to your healthy shopping list.
It began with a $1000 bet. My partner and his brother decided they needed to slim down this year. In January they shook on a deal whereby whoever fails to lose 10 per cent of their weight by Christmas has to pay the other $1000. (If they both reach their goal, their mother has agreed to pay them both.)
For my partner, the transition from swimmer to 36-year-old dad-in-a-desk-job has meant he just can't eat the way he used to (his Weetbix record is 30 in one sitting). These days a beer after mowing the lawns, a block of Whittaker's sitting in the fridge (usually hoovered over a couple of days), a packet of Twisties for the car ride to the beach, seems to all add up.
Not big on takeout or drinking, he finds weekly supermarket trips present the greatest challenge. Recently, armed with a grocery list that was all fruit, vegetables, meat and the basics, he came home feeling that his will had been tested like never before.
Salivating as he recalled the experience, a visible dichotomy of regret and pride in his resilience, he shared that he was accosted not once but five times by displays of shiny-bagged permutations of extruded cheese. You know the ones: Rashuns, Twisties, Cheezels, or as he likes to refer to them, "little packets of salty cheesy joy".
To his credit, he left them on the shelf.
But his experience has led me to conduct an unofficial survey of the supermarkets in our area – a Pak'nSave, a New World and one of two Countdowns, to determine which is the most challenging for someone trying to stick to their list of healthy groceries every week.
At the entrance to this behemoth bargain supermarket, I find a range of items displayed on special.
Big bins of seasonal produce - shiny apples and bulbous pumpkins, mottled orange and green - are flanked by shelves of discounted cleaning products, 99 cent cans of baked beans, "Extra Low" priced toilet paper and jumbo bags of rice. A mix of discounted groceries.
Heading through the non-return entry, I hit a picked-over display of store-packed cakes and slices. The walls on either side are high and packed with specials, indicated by the giant signs at the tippy top of each stand: pink packets of biscuits are $1.89 each, shouts one sign. Bottles of energy drinks, $1.99, exclaims another. The row continues with bottles of Coke, Sprite, mini-Coke, Just Juice, chips and bags of lollies. A display of tuna cans has squeezed in among the sweet stands and the long row of glistening foil packets and bottles of fizz ends in a large display of Ceres Organics canned goods.
If you can make it through here, you're onto the fresh produce. Phew.
Pak'nSave signs seem to be the same for all products: an Extra Low banner above the price, printed in yellow on black. You'll find this on sweet treats and seasonal fruit and vegetables alike.
But this is not quite the case at the next supermarket I visit.
If you're looking for "Hot Specials" on L&P, Coke and Sprite, Doritos, chips and chocolate bars, you could stand in the entrance of this supermarket, hold your arms out and spin and you'd gather up the lot. You'd also collect a bag of firewood and a giant bottle of water on your way.
And even though you're swiftly into the fresh produce section from there, temptation is all around. Dizzy from your junk food spin, you'll have to stumble around a bin of discount Oreos to get to the fruit and vegetables. Then do your darnedest not to notice the wall of pick-and-mix lollies to the left and a corner fridge of energy and fizzy drinks to the right.
Progressing through this supermarket, I note those "Hot Special" signs don't seem to feature on fresh produce, but this store does seem to have the cheapest junk food specials popping up, including $1 bags of Cheezels, Twisties and Rashuns. And a "More than 50 per cent off" sign for 1.5L bottles of L&P. Under another giant "Special" sign, big bottles of juice and packets of coffee sachets are stacked at the end of aisles too.
There's a small florist at the door, a made-to-order sushi stand, and a display of microgreens and plants for sale. There's a small bank of shelves by the florist with lollies, Coke, juice, chips and washing powder on special.
As I clack through the metal-barred entry I pass a display of avocados, grapes, kiwifruit and mandarins. The fresh produce appears to be just that. And it's not until I weave past the seafood section and into the aisles that the bad food bargains hit again: under big Super Saver and Club Deal signs I find biscuits, chips, coffee, Up&Go breakfast drinks, cereal, chocolate and chips. Tempting.
By and large, as does Pak'nSave, this store does well to keep the healthy food to itself.
As my round-up revealed, the Countdown store in my area presented the most frequent displays of sugary treats and discounted junk food. The runner up: Pak'nSave. While the range of shouting discount items here did extend outside of bad food bargains, the towering displays of cheap-as-chips chips and fizz were hard to ignore.
Which leaves us with New World. Perhaps it was the ratio of fresh food and greenery (from the sushi stall and the florist) to the small shelf of junk food that sat politely between it all, but New World certainly felt the most manageable of the supermarkets to get through without succumbing to the jazz hands of junk food shimmering in my periphery.
I asked Woolworths (Countdown) and Foodstuffs (New World and Pak'nSave) just how they go about selecting the items that get prime positioning in their stores.
A spokesperson for Foodstuffs advised they were not able to comment in the given timeframe, but Countdown has provided some insight.
They noted each Countdown stocks between 20,000 and 30,000 products, depending on the size of the store. "At any one time we have a variety of promotions, displays and specials. Promotions are agreed between Countdown and our suppliers, and we work together many months in advance."
When it comes to what we see on special and prominently displayed, the spokesperson says, "a variety of factors can impact how and why products are on special or featured in different parts of the store".
They list possible reasons as "a supplier's own promotional calendar, clearance, the range of products on promotion, customer trends or the season (e.g. soup is mostly widely promoted in winter)."
Meanwhile, it's been eight months and 6kg off since my partner began his weight loss challenge. He attributes his success to his sheer willpower to snub those cheap "little packets of salty cheesy joy". But now I see that switching to a new supermarket - and keeping his eye on the cash prize - should take some credit too.