Nutritionally poor products marketed as healthy in supermarkets

Nutritionally poor products marketed as healthy in supermarkets
Credit: Shutterstock.com/ 1000 Words

Three of the top five supermarkets in the UK have healthy eating sections which stock products that are unhealthy, scoring on the traffic light system, according to an investigation.

Spearheaded by BBC Radio 5 Live Investigates, the investigation also found that many of these products are vegetarian, vegan or free-from certain ingredients.

However, because of the perceived health halo, many consumers assume that they’re healthy when in fact they’re often high in fat, salt or sugar.

Now The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) is calling for further investigation into confusing and misleading marketing of foods labelled as ‘healthy’.

The EU register of Nutrition and Health Claims defines set values required for a product to be allowed to list health or nutrition statements.

There is no definition for ‘healthy’, so currently supermarkets can market products under this term as they wish.

There is a risk that promoting products under this health halo could cause consumers to make purchasing decisions based on misrepresentative information.

Trading Standards Officers have the power to inspect and enforce EU law, yet the evidence suggests the lack of a definition of what is ‘healthy’ allows supermarkets to use this to their advantage.

RSPH said it is looking at this issue “proactively” and is calling for a move away from using the term ‘healthy’ for food marketing.

It is also calling on supermarkets to promote the EatWell guide to inform purchasing decisions, and campaigning for a review of how supermarkets are regulated.

“We are aware that consumers don’t spend much time making decisions when buying food, so labelling and packaging must be easy to understand,” said Duncan Stephenson, Director of External Affairs and Marketing at RSPH.

“Good progress has been made on food labelling by retailers and manufacturers, such as the introduction of traffic light labelling, but this is at risk of being undermined by supermarket layout strategies and marketing ploys.

“The big four supermarkets have a huge amount of heft in society, and they should be incentivised to present clear and accurate information; and if that fails, further regulation should be considered.

“Brexit may present an opportunity to work with the industry to reform food labels and set a standard for how we can encourage customers to understand and feel able to make well informed decisions.”