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The Friday Digest: Brand owners under fire amid health back-pedalling

Traditionally, August is the month when the steady flow of press releases and company announcements slows to a trickle and thoughts turn to beachside holidays and ice cream sundaes.

Ice cream has certainly been on the mind of Action on Salt and ShareAction, but not in the leisurely sense. The two health charities have instead called on some of the UK’s biggest food suppliers to urgently improve the healthiness of their products, including ice cream, yoghurts and cereals. That’s after research found over half of 100 UK flagship products surveyed from Danone, Kellogg’s, Kraft Heinz, Nestlé, and Unilever are classified as high in fat, salt and/or sugar (HFSS) with Kellogg’s and Unilever deemed the worst offenders and Danone the least worst.

The big brand owners also came under fire after the snapshot survey found that over a third of the unhealthy products surveyed display what the charities called misleading ‘health halo’ claims as part of their product description.

Of the products featured in the Department of Health’s salt reduction programme, over a third of the items surveyed failed to meet their respective salt targets with many products also containing excessive levels of sugar, according to the campaigners. They are now calling on the government to take action including mandatory targets for reformulation, well enforced marketing and promotions restrictions (including shortening the delay to ban multi-buys and advertising) and better food-labelling requirements.

Food brands could be forgiven for feeling blasé about the impending risk of tighter government health measures such have been the noises emanating (or not as the case may be) from Whitehall of late. Indeed, the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities has appeared to be on permanent vacation since it assumed responsibility for obesity policy from Public Health England last autumn.

Conservative leadership front runner Liz Truss, meanwhile, played the ever popular (among Conservative Party members) ‘nanny state’ card in her campaigning this week by pledging to scrap proposals for a ban on buy one, get one free (BOGOF) deals on unhealthy products and committing not to impose new taxes on HFSS products if she becomes prime minister.

It’s hard to contend that the UK government hasn’t backpedalled on obesity policies since Boris Johnson’s flagship strategy was published in 2020, even before Truss has got her feet under the Downing Street desk. But it’s notable too how her position – tailored to appeal to the less than 1% of the electorate that is eligible to vote for our new prime minister – does not appear to reflect the view of the wider public. New NielsenIQ data shows that 57% of UK consumers believe companies should be taxed heavily if they are producing or promoting unhealthy choices.

The research company’s data also shows that shoppers face a challenge of looking after their personal health and the planet’s while managing the rise in food and living expenses as a result of the current inflation in the country. Inflation, of course, isn’t restricted to products considered healthy. The FT reported this week that McDonald’s restaurants in the UK are raising the price of their signature 99p cheeseburger for the first time in 14 years to £1.19.

But healthy products do generally come at a premium. Recent Food Foundation research found that healthy foods are nearly three times as expensive per calorie as less healthy foods. Moreover, the poorest fifth of UK households would need to spend 47% of their disposable income on food to meet the cost of the government’s recommended healthy diet, the Eatwell Guide.

In this context, the case for further government intervention to make healthy foods more affordable and penalise unhealthy products seems compelling.

Will it happen any time soon? A cynic would argue there’s more chance of ice cream van owners going on strike this summer.