The NCC's Health Responsibility Index league table found that three of 'big four' retailers - Tesco, Asda and Morrisons - rated behind Waitrose, the Co-op and fellow market leader Sainsbury's in promoting healthy eating. With these three chains accounting for significant share of the UK's food retail outlets, the health of a large chunk of the nation could be at serious risk, according to the NCC.
Deirdre Hutton, head of the NCC, said that the organisation had rated retailers according to four main criteria: the nutritional value of ten everyday, own-label processed foods, focusing particularly on salt; the clarity of the labelling; in-store promotions of healthy foods, including the shelf-space dedicated to fruit compared to less healthy snacks such as crisps, biscuits or sweets; and in-store information and advice for customers on healthy eating.
The NCC looked at a range of everyday foods including sausages, bread, yoghurt, pasta sauce and pizza, and found huge variations in the amounts of salt, sugar, and fat both between the supermarkets and also between supermarkets' own standard ranges and their 'healthy eating' options.
Of the leading chains assessed by the NCC, Waitrose came out on top, followed by Sainsbury's, the Co-op and M&S. market leader Tesco was ranked equal fifth with Safeway, which fared better than new owner Morrisons, which was ranked in last place. Asda was seventh while struggling Somerfield was eighth.
"Supermarkets have made positive changes but they need to do more," said Hutton. "Our report shows that where you shop can have a real impact. We've looked at the major supermarkets and how they promote the food they sell and, although we found some positives, none shone and not a single one did well across all our health indicators," said Hutton.
"The big four supermarkets - where we spend three quarters of our national food bill - could really make a difference by cutting salt, sugar and fat, improving labelling and information, doing more to promote healthier foods and taking sweets off the checkout."
But the real cause for concern was that supermarkets frequented by less well-off consumers were those which, by and large, were found to be the biggest 'sinners' in terms of healthy food promotions.
"While we weren't surprised to see Waitrose, a top-end retailer, do relatively well, it's worrying that we found retailers with a high proportion of lower income shoppers (Asda, Morrisons) appearing to reinforce the health inequalities between rich and poor. The Co-op was the one company that bucked this trend," said Hutton.
Waitrose's top score of 6½ out of 10 came mainly as a result of its decision to remove all snacks from the checkout - the only one of the 10 retailers to do so - but also because of the high level of in-store information and advice available to consumers. But even Waitrose could do better, the NCC report showed, with more work needed on providing clear nutritional information and on reducing the salt content of its own label products.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Sainsbury's - which is to be the first British retailer to carry 'traffic light' labelling on its foods in a bid to make selecting healthy food easier for its customers - scored well (5½ out of 10) on the quality of customer information and on removing snacks from the checkout, but the NCC said it too needed to do more to reduce salt levels and to extend labelling.
Safeway, meanwhile, ranked much higher than its new owner, Morrisons, with its fruit shelf-space quota second only to the top-ranked Marks & Spencer - findings which, as the NCC report put it, "raise questions over whose standards will prevail in the future".
The Co-op was marked down for its poor levels of information and advice - a surprising revelation for a company which tends to be at the forefront of food-related initiatives such as organic food or Fairtrade.
At either end of the scale, Marks & Spencer has more shelf space dedicated to fruit than any of the others (though it still packs confectionery and snacks around the checkouts) while Asda has four times as much shelf space devoted to crisps, biscuits and sweets as to fruit. But even it is not the worst 'snack' offender - that dubious honour goes to Somerfield.
The NCC called on the government to take more action to promote healthy eating and good nutritional advice, but reserved most of its recommendations for the retailers themselves, suggesting, among other things, that they commit to hitting the Food Standards Agency's targets for salt reduction in own label foods and work with the agency to set new targets for fat and saturated fat.
The retailers - whose own label products were for the most part judged to be better than their branded equivalents - were also called on to exert their influence on branded suppliers to reduce excess salt, fat and sugar.
The NCC also gave its support to the much criticised (by food manufacturers) 'traffic light' system (which will be introduced by Sainsbury's and Tesco, among others) as offering a simple way of flagging up healthier products. At the very least, the NCC argues, retailers should agree to standardise the labelling of their products to ensure a 'consistency of message' - including translating sodium content into a salt figure, as well as offering full nutritional information.
The way in which retailers position food in-store is also called into question, with the NCC seeking greater prominence for healthy products compared to less healthy snack, and reiterating calls for other stores to follow Waitrose's suit and remove all confectionery and snack foods from the checkout area.
The full Rating Retailers report can be found on the NCC's website.