Concerning Limitations of Food-Environment
Research: A Narrative Review and Commentary
Framed around Obesity and Diet-Related
Diseases in Youth
Sean C. Lucan, MD, MPH, MS
Accepted 15 August 2014
2212-2672/Copyright ª2014 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
BEFORE DESCRIBING COMMON AND CONCERNING
limitations of food-environment research (and rec-
ommendations to address them), it may be useful
to discuss the rationale for studying food environ-
ments in the ﬁrst place. Food environments are relevant to
diverse nutritional issues and health disparities. An especially
compelling argument for studying food environments is the
public health challenge of diet-related chronic diseases,
particularly in youth.
Diet-related chronic diseases (eg, obesity, diabetes, and
vascular diseases) are leading causes of disability and pre-
mature death in the United States.
Diseases that were once
considered “adult-onset”now appear earlier in the life
course, with preventable impairments affecting youth.
Over recent decades, young people have become more
with obesity early in life linked to later-life
and premature death.
Fortunately, if obese young people are able to transition to
normal weights as adults, they might escape chronic disease
risks as if they were never obese.
transitions rarely occur; with advancing age and passing
generations, young people increasingly consume fewer
healthy whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and whole
grains, and consume more unhealthy items, like reﬁned
sweets (eg, candy, sugary drinks), simple starches (eg,
snacks chips), and various other reﬁned and highly processed
There is little question that many factors inﬂuence what
young people eat; individual, social, and cultural factors
are undoubtedly important.
Also important are physical
particularly the local environments in
which individuals can obtain foods and beverages: ie,
Modifying individual, social, or
cultural factors may be quite difﬁcult.
environments—keeping individual, social, and cultural con-
texts in mind—could be a comparatively efﬁcient strategy to
improve nutrition and health by making healthier eating the
Food environments include settings such as homes and
schools, but much of young people’s unhealthy food
consumption occurs away from these sites.
well-intentioned interventions directed at home or school
environments may be ineffective.
For instance, although
a state ban on all sugar-sweetened beverages in middle
schools reduced in-school access and purchasing of such
beverages, it did not reduce overall consumption.
according to other research, may be that adolescents (even
from low-income households) will typically spend approxi-
mately $4 per day on items such as chips, candy, and soda
from outside sources.
Outside sources of food in environments around home and
school may be especially relevant for adolescents. Unfortu-
nately, such food environments, particularly in urban, low-
income, and minority communities, tend to offer mostly
less-healthy fast foods and convenience items with few
This food-distribution reality is a
problem because some studies suggest that the greater the
density of and proximity to fast-food outlets and convenience
stores, the more likely adolescents are to consume fast foods
have less healthy diets,
weight or obese,
and have features of metabolic syn-
Conversely, greater distance to convenience
or fast food
and closer proximity to supermar-
and restaurants serving vegetables
with higher produce consumption,
fewer purchases of
less fast-food intake,
and healthier weights.
LIMITATIONS OF FOOD-ENVIRONMENT RESEARCH
Despite the associations noted above, some studies demon-
strate no consistent relationship between access to fast-food
restaurants or small stores on the one hand and dietary
or body weight on the other
; or between
supermarket access and produce consumption on one hand
ª2014 by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. JOURNAL OF THE ACADEMY OF NUTRITION AND DIETETICS 1
and diet quality on the other.
Some studies have even
generated counterintuitive ﬁndings
: eg, that the odds of
consuming vegetables is greater the farther an individual
lives from a supermarket,
or that obesity rates are posi-
tively correlated with healthy food access and negatively
associated with fast-food exposure.
In a review of the literature from 2009, Larson and Story
concluded that the majority of food-environment studies
have “methodological limitations which limit their credibility
to guide interventions and policy changes.”
review was published 5 years ago, little has changed in the
landscape of food-environment research to date to suggest
much progress. Indeed, several common limitations remain
substantial problems for the ﬁeld.
The limitations described in the review that follows
involve problems of assessing physical access to food
sources in an environment. The review focuses speciﬁcally
on measuring food-access issues relevant to young people
transitioning to adulthood, but many of the issues are
cross-cutting and generally relevant to other populations
and groups. For any groups, assessments of additional as-
pects of food environments also merit critique (eg, assess-
ments of items available in the home and in other settings
like work and school, and assessments of the placement,
prices, and promotion of items within surrounding retail
spaces); these additional considerations are beyond the
scope of this essentially geo-spatialefocused review. What
follows here are descriptions of ﬁve common limitations in
food-source physical-access assessment, along with rec-
ommendations to address each.
Limitation 1: Inaccurate Datasets to Identify Food
The use of pre-existing datasets, like commercial business
lists, is exceedingly common in food-environment research.*
Such datasets were convenient, efﬁcient, and appropriate for
early exploratory studies, and helped produce ﬁndings that
called attention to possible associations between food envi-
ronments, individual diet, and downstream diet-related
health outcomes. Unfortunately, such datasets inadequately
reﬂect actual food environments on the ground.
example, a study in one dense urban area showed that one of
the most commonly used business lists had a sensitivity of
only 39.3% overall (only 26.2% for general grocers) and a
positive predictive value of only 45.5% overall (only 32% for
specialty food stores) compared to direct observation.
if performance was twice as good in other settings (which
other validation studies suggest is not the case
from research linking food environments to diet and diet-
related health outcomes relying solely on such business
lists would be in question.
Universally validating commercial business lists with
other sources of data or otherwise using two or more pre-
existing data sources for retail information (eg, telephone
or Internet directories, dining or shopping guides, various
government records, or multiple commercial business
may be a strategy for researchers to use moving
forward. This strategy would be appropriate when
geographic areas of interest are too large and/or too dense
with food sources to reasonably allow for direct observation
(eg, areas like an entire US state or a large urban county).
When discrepancies exist between datasets, direct ground-
truthing should be done to reconcile disagreements
if not possible, remote assessment using web-based or other
(but only if pilot-testing in
areas of interest demonstrates acceptable concordance with
direct observation). If even remote reconciliation is unfeasi-
ble (or ill-advised), at a minimum sensitivity analyses are in
order, modeling and reporting best and worst-case scenarios
of discrepancies to see whether conclusions change (as done
in validation studies reporting results by both exact/strict
and nonexact/lenient matching
). For smaller geographic
areas that are less dense with food sources (eg, areas like
some urban zip codes or rural counties), the gold standard
should probably be “boots on the ground”direct assess-
Data from such primary collection may not
only be more complete, accurate, and applicable than that
from pre-existing retail sets, it might actually be more
economical as well given the considerable human and
monetary investment that could otherwise be required for
data purchasing/acquisition, proper data cleaning, and
dataset mergers and management.
Limitation 2: Categorizations of Food Sources Based
on Generalized Type
Most food-environment studies lump food sources of a
certain type together
(eg, as if every small store were the
same as every other small store in terms of varieties of foods
offered when demonstrably this is not the case
example, supermarkets are usually considered as “healthy”
food sources even though they often sell plenty of highly
processed unhealthy fare.
Conversely, fast-food outlets
are usually considered as “unhealthy”food sources even
though they often offer whole foods like green salads, sliced
fruit, and milk.
It is essential to not classify businesses based on name or
generalized type (eg, Pleasantville Grocery¼“healthy”)
without knowing anything about the foods and beverages
actually available. Distinctions of “healthy”and “unhealthy”—
or preferably measures with greater gradation, like indexes or
numerical scores accounting for inevitable product mixes—
should be based on what businesses actually offer. Compre-
hensive audits are not necessarily required, particularly for
studies at larger scales. Examining the availability (yes/no) of
a few select categories (eg, sugary beverages, salty snacks,
candy, fresh produce) may sufﬁce for many purposes, with
assessments of test-retest performance and inter-rater
concordance to establish reliable tools and standardize
methods. Studies at larger scales may beneﬁt from remote-
assessment methods, for instance using Internet menus, cir-
culars, or other business advertisements (particularly for
chain stores and restaurants that have consistent offerings
If actual assessments are not possible,
studies should again include sensitivity analyses (eg,
*Select list of 35 published studies available from the
author upon request.
2JOURNAL OF THE ACADEMY OF NUTRITION AND DIETETICS -- 2014 Volume -Number -
modeling stores with unknown inventory as both having
candy [just as an example] and then as not having candy and
assessing whether reported results are robust to the uncer-
tainty—an approach that is both novel and conservative). For
studies at smaller scales (as with Recommendation 1 dis-
cussed earlier) “boots on the ground”direct assessments—in
this case of select product categories—should probably be the
Limitation 3: Inclusion of Only a Limited Range of
Most studies of food environments have focused almost
exclusively on select stores (eg, supermarkets) and/or on
various kinds of restaurants (mostly fast-food outlets).†
Such focus neglects alternative, often nonintuitive, food
sources such as gas stations, hardware stores, clothing
outlets, book sellers, general merchandisers, salons, phar-
macies, and other retailers offering food and/or drink.
also neglects impermanent sources of food that may also be
relevant, such as street vendors (ie, mobile food ven-
). Certainly, the food
environment is much broader than just select food stores
and restaurants. Potential implications of including or
excluding certain types of food sources are illustrated in
Researchers should consider the totality of food sources in
their study areas of interest. Nonintuitive sources of highly
processed, prepackaged, convenience items could potentially
offset any healthy inﬂuence of sources of whole fresh foods in
communities, and it is insufﬁcient to focus on only major food
retailers when calories may be nearly ubiquitous across
diverse retailers. Recommendations for retail assessments—
using pre-existing datasets, remote techniques, and sensi-
tivity analyses vs direct observation—appear under Recom-
mendations 1 and 2 (discussed earlier). All retail assessments
should be as comprehensive as possible.
Limitation 4: Consideration of Food Sources in
Just as it is ill-advised to consider individual nutrients out of
the context of an overall food—and individual foods out of
the context of an overall diet—so too it is ill-advised to
consider individual food sources out of the context of an
overall food environment. Unfortunately, most studies
consider only the effect of food sources X (eg, supermarkets)
and perhaps also the separate effect of food sources Y (eg,
fast-food outlets), but not how food sources X and Y interact.
A question such as: “Are fruit carts around schools associated
with greater produce consumption regardless of whether
fast-food outlets are present?”is just one of a type that
remains unanswered. This type of question can only be
addressed when a narrow focus on just fruit carts or just
fast-food outlets is expanded to consider a broader, poten-
tially interactive, “big picture.”
Because food sources do not operate in a vacuum, simulta-
neous consideration of food sources is imperative. At least a
few studies have made strides in this area, suggesting that it
is a ratio or the proportional contribution of multiple food
sources acting in concert that may matter more than any
one type of food source acting alone.
should continue to explore the importance of proximity,
distribution, and density of multiple food sources relative to
one another, particularly keeping in mind Recommenda-
tions 1-3 (discussed earlier) for the greatest accuracy
and completeness in making individual food-source
Limitation 5: Problems with Deﬁning “Exposure”to
Methodological choices matter when deﬁning “exposure”or
“access”to food sources.
One strategy commonly used to
deﬁne “exposure”in food-environment studies is to use
administrative areas such as block groups, census tracts, or
zip codes (Figure, panel A).‡Such administrative areas may
be quite problematic for food-environment conclusions
though, because there could be highly uneven exposures
within administrative boundaries. For example, fast-food
outlets in a zip code might matter little to individuals living
in an area of the zip code far from where most of the fast-
food outlets are concentrated. Also, the boundaries of
administrative units might have little relation to the areas
where individuals actually engage with food (eg, one’s
concept of “neighborhood”may be quite different than the
zip code where one lives).
A second strategy some studies use to deﬁne food-source
exposure is to specify proximity or physical distance. Most
often, the method in this case is to draw a circular area with a
radius of linear or Euclidean distance “as the crow ﬂies”from
a central point of interest (Figure, panel B).§However, linear
distances may be poor measures of actual exposure or
For instance, straight lines ignore possible
travel routes and barriers to transit like train tracks, rivers,
and divided highways.
A third strategy used in studies to deﬁne food-source
exposure is to delineate unimpeded paths of an existing
street network to characterize proximity (Figure, panel C). A
problem here is often an exclusive focus on travel routes
around individuals’homes, not around other points of po-
tential relevance (eg, around work or school).kAnother
problem with proximity by street network (or by Euclidean
distance) is the question of what length of travel might
be most relevant (eg,
mile, 1 mile); associations
obtained may be quite different depending on distances
Of the three strategies discussed, only exposure deﬁned
by administrative area (Figure, panel A) inherently involves
Select list of 39 published studies available from the
author upon request.
Select list of 16 published studies available from the
author upon request.
Select list of 13 published studies available from the
author upon request.
Select list of 10 published studies available from the
author upon request.
-- 2014 Volume -Number -JOURNAL OF THE ACADEMY OF NUTRITION AND DIETETICS 3
(by deﬁnition) administrative boundaries or “edges.”Prox-
imity measures like Euclidean distance and street-network
areas (Figure, panels B and C) need not be bounded by
“edges,”but almost invariably are. Food-environment
studies generally only consider data in sample areas of in-
terest (eg, in county A), not data in areas directly adjacent
(eg, in bordering county B). This is a problem because any
assessment of a food environment in an area (regardless of
Limitations 1-4 discussed earlier) may be incorrect if “edge
effects”(ie, the effects of exposure across study-area
boundaries) are not considered. For instance, if there are
no supermarkets in a study area but there are plenty of
supermarkets just over the border (or “edge”) in an acces-
sible adjacent area, then the assessment of accessibility or
exposure for study individuals, considering only the study
area, may be completely wrong. In fact, one study demon-
strated that 37% of distance estimates for accessibility to
food retailers were wrong when edge effects were not
Finally, the exposure issues described earlier all relate to
strategies for deﬁning ﬁxed and bounded geospatial areas,
but the experience of most individuals is probably not
ﬁxed or bounded. It may be more important to understand
how people navigate within local geographies to obtain
their food. Certainly, residential area may be important
(and other areas like those around school or work), but
proximity is not the only concern. Indeed, studies
have shown that other concerns may trump physical
proximity because individuals rarely shop at their nearest
For example, travel times may relate to food
and access to private vehicles or public
transportation may be modiﬁers of the role local food en-
Research should consider potential travel routes
“activity spaces”as attempted in only a few studies to
The former is theoretically possible even
on larger scales (eg, states, countries), using geographic in-
formation systems (GIS) software packages. As with other is-
sues of uncertainty, sensitivity analyses could be done (eg,
modeling different possible travel paths between food sources
and home, school, and/or work locations). For smaller studies,
measuring actual “activity spaces”(ie, how individuals actually
travel in their daily routines) is possible using global posi-
tioning systems (GPS) or, somewhat less ideally, using partic-
ipant reports of travel routes and activities.
The limitations discussed in this article represent not only
challenges for future food-environment research, but also
Figure. Same food environment, three different strategies to measure “exposure,”three very different implications.
inherent property of the strategy (A, B, or C) used to deﬁne exposure, but another consideration that highlights the different
ﬁndings that might result from different assessments of “exposure.”
4JOURNAL OF THE ACADEMY OF NUTRITION AND DIETETICS -- 2014 Volume -Number -
concerning sources of error in the existing food-
environment literature. If the error is random, its effect is
to create noise, masking true associations when they
actually exist. This possibility challenges the “null”ﬁndings
of many studies that examined associations between food
environments and diet or health outcomes.¶More worri-
some, though, is that error could be systematic, and some
evidence suggests that at least some of it is.
issue in this case is the potential for biased ﬁndings,
creating associations that do not actually exist or exagger-
ating the magnitude of those that do. Either way, the Figure
makes it clear that any food environment might produce
very different, even opposite, ﬁndings depending on the
methods used for assessment.
Of additional concern is that the issues discussed in this
article represent only a sample of limitations in food-
environment studies. Other common limitations include
relying mostly on cross-sectional rather than longitudinal
designs (with a nontrivial potential for false-positive er-
) and problems with measurement on the “outcome
side”of presumed associations: eg, assessing dietary intake,
such as fruit-and-vegetable consumption, through single-
item survey questions or assessing diet-related health out-
comes like body mass index using self-reported heights and
weights.#The take-away message from all of these limita-
tions is one of caution. Available research still does not allow
us to conﬁdently identify the ways in which food environ-
ments inﬂuence diet
or diet-related health outcomes.
fact, our limited knowledge base challenges the develop-
ment of interventions and policies that would be of net
Future research needs to build on prior studies, improve
on past designs, and overcome the limitations of founda-
tional work in the ﬁeld. Although previous studies picked
low-hanging fruit and called attention to important areas
for investigation, there is still much hanging fruit to
collect (and probably some collected fruit that is past its
prime and ready to compost). Future picking will require
greater effort, resources, and investment than has become
the norm. The studies needed to advance the ﬁeld will
require higher-quality, more complete, and more nuanced
data on food sources, considering interactions between
food-source exposures and how people may navigate
through their lived spaces in more sophisticated ways.
Gains in these areas could help inform initiatives
and address unanswered questions about public health
nutrition—questions such as: Do supermarkets matter for
community nutrition when there is a high density of fast-
food exposure? Would adding a farmers’market help? If
so, where? What if hot dog carts move in?
The path ahead is not an easy one. But generations of
young people growing up obese and unhealthy may be
depending on us to do better.
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S. C. Lucan is a family physician and public health researcher, Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine,
Monteﬁore Medical Center, Bronx, NY.
Address correspondence to: Sean C. Lucan, MD, MPH, MS, Department of Family and Social Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine,
Monteﬁore Medical Center, 1300 Morris Park Ave, Block Building, Room 410, Bronx, NY 10461. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
STATEMENT OF POTENTIAL CONFLICT OF INTEREST
No potential conﬂict of interest was reported by the author.
The author received no funding to support this manuscript.
The author has no acknowledgements for this article, but would like to recognize the many valuable contributions of other investigators who are
also engaged in food-environment research.
8JOURNAL OF THE ACADEMY OF NUTRITION AND DIETETICS -- 2014 Volume -Number -