Work using supermarket food purchase data to build upon and develop new approaches to using digital lifestyle data in health research is being undertaken by researchers at the Leeds Institute of Data Analytics. The work, led by Dr Michelle Morris, an Associate Professor in the School of Medicine at the University of Leeds, includes collaborations with retail partners as well as industry bodies including the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD). 5 pilot trials are currently ongoing in 4 different supermarkets in different geographic areas making the research as inclusive as possible. One of the trials is studying low-income groups, another data partnership with Asda is focussing on plant-based products.

With a background spanning health informatics, geography, nutritional epidemiology and health economics, Dr Morris has a keen interest in social variations in diet, lifestyle and health and how new and emerging forms of data can be best utilised to understand these. “My team are working with novel data sources, alongside industry partners to gain new insight from food and activity data at scale” she says.

Each of the 5 pilot projects is at a different stage of analysis, but early data from the first pilot in collaboration with the Sainsbury’s Healthy Lifestyles Team is already providing a better understanding of patterns of food and drink purchases and nutrition, health and sustainability. “By understanding population level purchasing patterns, social and demographic variation in patterns and how these compare to more traditional nutritional survey data, we can effectively target interventions to those who would benefit most. This is now more important than ever considering the cost-of-living crisis and the need to access healthy, sustainable and affordable food and drink” explains Michelle.  

To look at individual household level data over an extended period of time requires significant investment in secure data infrastructure, data science expertise and in this case nutrition expertise, which has so far not been possible in nutrition research which has instead relied on participant questionaries. Dr Morris’ team at LIDA and in collaboration with the Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), has not only been able to secure funding, but also has the expertise in place to make this research a reality.  

The work has recently won a University Engaged for Impact award, recognising the hard work that goes into building sustainable partnerships and collaboration with industry that will bring about lasting change. The outputs of these pilots will be presented to government and charities ensuring the potential impact can be realised.