UK retailers pushing unhealthy foods most, finds watchdog. Industry cites 'value'

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

A ban on promotions for junk foods was thought to be under consideration as part of the country’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy. ©iStock
A ban on promotions for junk foods was thought to be under consideration as part of the country’s long-awaited childhood obesity strategy. ©iStock

Related tags: Nutrition

Supermarkets in the UK are promoting more unhealthy products than healthy ones, according to new research carried out by consumer group Which?

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

kids eating obesity health
The leaked obesity strategy reportedly included a target to cut sugar in food and drink by 20% by 2020. ©iStock

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.

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