Does exposure to the food environment differ by socioeconomic position? Comparing area-based and person-centred metrics in the Fenland Study, UK

26 Oct 2017

BACKGROUND: Retail food environments (foodscapes) are a recognised determinant of eating behaviours and may contribute to inequalities in diet. However, findings from studies measuring socioeconomic inequality in the foodscape have been mixed, which may be due to methodological differences. The aim of this cross-sectional study was to compare exposure to the foodscape by socioeconomic position using different measures, to test whether the presence, direction or amplitude of differences was sensitive to the choice of foodscape metric or socioeconomic indicator. METHODS: A sample of 10,429 adults aged 30–64 years with valid home address data were obtained from the Fenland Study, UK. Of this sample, 7270 participants also had valid work location data. The sample was linked to data on food outlets obtained from local government records. Foodscape metrics included count, density and proximity of takeaway outlets and supermarkets, and the percentage of takeaway outlets relative to all food outlets. Exposure metrics were area-based (lower super output areas), and person-centred (proximity to nearest; Euclidean and Network buffers at 800 m, 1 km, and 1 mile). Person-centred buffers were constructed using home and work locations. Socioeconomic status was measured at the area-level (2010 Index of Multiple Deprivation) and the individual-level (highest educational attainment; equivalised household income). Participants were classified into socioeconomic groups and average exposures estimated. Results were analysed using the statistical and percent differences between the highest and lowest socioeconomic groups. RESULTS: In area-based measures, the most deprived areas contained higher takeaway outlet densities (p < 0.001). However, in person-centred metrics lower socioeconomic status was associated with lower exposure to takeaway outlets and supermarkets (all home-based exposures p < 0.001) and socioeconomic differences were greatest at the smallest buffer sizes. Socioeconomic differences in exposure was similar for home and combined home and work measures. Measuring takeaway exposure as a percentage of all outlets reversed the socioeconomic differences; the lowest socioeconomic groups had a higher percentage of takeaway outlets compared to the middle and highest groups (p < 0.001). Conclusions We compared approaches to measuring socioeconomic variation in the foodscape and found that the association was sensitive to the metric used. In particular, the direction of association varied between area- and person-centred measures and between absolute and relative outlet measures. Studies need to consider the most appropriate measure for the research question, and may need to consider multiple measures as a single measure may be context dependent.