Healthy food campaigners target UK government’s ‘healthy eating’ app

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/lechatnoir
Image: Getty/lechatnoir

Related tags Health Nutrition ultra processed food Health claims Obesity

A row has broken about a UK government healthy eating tool for families and children that campaigners say is promoting ultra-processed foods despite their links to cancer, heart disease and early death.

A Soil Association investigation has revealed that the NHS Food Scanner App recommends biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate puddings and fizzy pop as “good” options for a healthy diet. Energy drinks and instant noodles are also endorsed by the app.

The app – which has been downloaded at least half a million times – was launched as part of the UK government’s Better Health campaign. It aims to help families “take control” of snacking and awards a “Good Choice” thumbs up if products fall below its threshold of salt, sugar, or saturated fat.

But the Soil Association investigation tested the app on popular snack products and found that 80% of a sample of products with the “Good Choice” badge or similar endorsements were ultra-processed. These products are linked to heart, kidney and liver disease, cancer, depression and premature death.

With these potentially life-shortening foods making up more than half of UK diets, and children particularly at risk, the organisation has launched a petition urging the government to stop promoting them. 

Soil Association Campaign Coordinator Cathy Cliff said: “We are shocked to see the government not only ignoring the health risks around ultra-processed foods but actively encouraging families to consume them. It seems like the government is more concerned about corporate profits than children’s health.

“When every penny counts, it is near criminal that families are being misled to waste money on junk food that doesn’t fill you up with anything other than health risks.

“The government’s dietary advice is severely out of date and its failure to provide good advice is putting us all at risk. It is wrong that fizzy drinks and crisps are being promoted to children.”

The app investigation followed a Soil Association review of more than 100 recent scientific research papers. They revealed the damaging effect that the industrial additives and processing techniques typical of ultra-processed foods have on the gut microbiome and our overall health. 

This means these foods carry health risks even when relatively low in salt, sugar, and fat – something the government’s dietary advice fails to take account of.

With the help of parents and carers who trialled the NHS Food Scanner app in their local supermarket or on a home delivery, Soil Association food experts analysed around 100 products with the “Good Choice” badge and other endorsements such as “High-Five, go go green!” and “Healthier Choice”.

These products fell into categories of food or drink often given to children, including savoury snacks, sweet snacks, and drinks such as squash or fizzy drinks.

The investigation focused on these as the app is designed to help families scan their “favourite foods” and find “healthier swaps”, encouraging control around children’s snacking. 

From these products, Soil Association experts identified 10 popular ultra-processed food and drink products as key examples of what is being recommended by the app.

Cathy added: “Many of the products given a thumbs up or high five by the NHS Food Scanner App are unhealthy, ultra-processed food and drink sold by some of the most popular British brands. The government’s Better Health campaign has been linked to commercial food businesses from the start, with its initial iteration launching in partnership with Tesco, Asda, Pepsico, Kellogg’s, The Co-operative Group, Spar, Costcutter, and Nisa. With junk food manufacturers endorsed by the Good Choice badge, it is unforgiveable that a public health campaign is at times benefiting food businesses more than families.”

Parent Rachel Childs completed the survey and said: “The NHS app doesn't account for level of processing and doesn’t suggest switching to nutrient-dense foods – why buy biscuits slightly lower in sugar when I could be encouraged to buy fruit instead? It misses the whole idea of planning a nutritionally balanced diet. Just swapping processed foods for other processed foods misses concepts such as the need for dietary diversity and reducing snacking.”

British children have the highest levels of ultra-processed food intake in Europe, with under 14s getting an average 67% of their daily energy intake from these types of food. UPFs account for an average 63% of daily energy intake across all adult and child age groups, up from 57% in 2008.  

The Soil Association is calling for the government to take action by: removing the UK government’s Good Choice badge from ultra-processed products, including in the NHS Food Scanner App: introducing dietary guidelines to address ultra-processed food and drink; introducing a percentage reduction target to reduce ultra-processed food and drink consumption levels in the UK to more healthy levels by 2030; and talking to families about their experience of ultra-processed foods, and working to ensure that healthy foods are more accessible and affordable.

Cliff added: “The public health risks being posed by ultra-processed foods are not only growing but they are long-lasting. Unhealthy eating habits are increasingly difficult to shake with junk food offered cheap, healthy food often inaccessible, and government dietary guidance out of date. The UK government must follow the lead of other countries and stop falling behind on tackling this important issue.”​ 

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