Between 1 April and 30 June its team studied 77,165 products on promotion, of which 47% were 'healthier' compared to 53% that were 'less healthy'. More than half (52%) the confectionery was on offer, but only around a third of fresh fruit (30%) and vegetables (34%).
Products were categorised based on the UK’s traffic light labelling scheme: less healthy ones were those that had a “red light” for fat, saturates, sugar or salts (the exception was products with a single 'red' warning for fat but a 'green' for saturated fat). Fresh, unprocessed fruit and vegetables were automatically classed as healthier.
Within the less healthy category, frozen chips and potatoes (78%), pizzas (70%) and soft drinks (70%) were the most promoted. More than two thirds (69%) of the soft drinks on promotion fall under the higher sugar band of the Government's proposed sugar tax.
All the supermarkets scrutinised – Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose – promoted more unhealthy products than healthy ones.
Retailers suggested the research shows nothing more than the “great value” they offer across all product ranges. “It has never been easier or more affordable to choose a balanced diet,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability policy at the British Retail Consortium (BRC).
However, a poll of 2,003 adults published by Which? alongside its investigation showed that 51% want more healthy choices within promotion schemes.
Promotion of sugar
Price promotions in Britain are the highest in Europe, representing around 40% of food and drink expenditure. This is double the level seen in Germany, France and Spain.
A ban on promotions for junk foods was thought to be under consideration as part of the country’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy.
This followed an analysis by Public Health England for the UK Government showing that “price promotions increase the amount of foods people buy by around one fifth and around 6% of total sugar purchased could potentially be prevented if promotions on higher sugar products did not occur.”
However, in a draft of the strategy leaked last month there was reportedly no sign of any restrictions on junk food promotional deals. A few days later it was announced the strategy would be delayed until the autumn.
Which? urged the government to adopt the new policy package “as soon as possible”, and to include measures to “hold retailers to account for the promotion of less healthy foods if they fail to improve.”
The much-hyped Public Health Responsibility Deal – which encouraged companies to sign up to pledges to cut sugar, fat and salt from products – wound up with little more than a whimper in October after almost five years, and repeated criticism.
Almost one in two (49%) consumers surveyed by Which? wanted supermarkets to make foods with less fat, sugar and salt. The leaked obesity strategy reportedly included a target to cut sugar in food and drink by 20% by 2020, but there were no new reformulation targets for fat or salt.
Action on Sugar called the proposals “pathetic”. “This is just another imitation of the same Responsibility Deal take two,” claimed the campaign group’s chairman Professor Graham MacGregor.