By Chris Adams

As Americans expand, one culprit is down the street at the grocery, where food manufacturers have for decades steered consumers toward buying foods the manufacturers want them to buy.

Collin Payne, a professor at New Mexico State University, is trying to nudge consumers toward making more nutritious choices.

Payne, who co-directs a consumer behavior lab, at his university, told National Press Foundation fellows that it might be possible to design groceries so shoppers are more inclined to buy fruits and vegetables – and to take a pass on the dozen varieties of Oreos.

After detailing many of the tricks that marketers use to spur purchases – everything from “slotting fees” for favorable product placement on shelves to crafty packaging that masks a product’s calories – Payne told of his simple efforts to redirect shoppers toward healthy options.

How simple are his strategies? Think duct tape.

In one experiment conducted in a grocery chain, Payne and his team put duct tape down the middle of a shopping cart and instructed consumers to fill half of the cart with fruits and vegetables. In another experiment, he used green arrows to direct shoppers toward the produce section. Still another used signs in grocery carts to tell shoppers what the norms were for fruit and vegetable purchases (“In this store, most people choose at least 5 produce items,” one sign read).

In all cases, it worked. But the experiments thus far have been small, he said. And Payne noted one critical step that remains to know if the efforts are really having an impact.

“Because food bought is not necessarily food eaten,” he cautioned.