The leading supermarkets are highly variable when it comes to encouraging healthier eating, according to a new report.

The National Consumer Council (NCC) has launched a Health Responsibility Index league table to score retailers on their healthy eating practices, with Tesco, Asda and Morrisons falling behind Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and the Co-op.

“Most of us buy most of our food in supermarkets which places a huge responsibility on them to work to improve the diet and health of their customers. Supermarkets have made positive changes but they need to do more. Our report shows that where you shop can have a real impact. We’ve looked at the major supermarkets and how they promote the food they sell and, although we found some positives, none shone and not a single one did well across all our health indicators,” said NCC chair Deirdre Hutton.

The NCC’s Health Responsibility Index measured and compared company performance in four key areas: nutritional value of ten everyday, own-label processed foods – focusing on salt; clear labelling – the information provided and whether interpreted, such as high, medium or low, or other signposting such as traffic lights; in-store promotions of healthy versus less healthy foods – shelf-space dedicated to fruit compared to less healthy snacks, such as crisps, biscuits or sweets; whether stores had sweets or other less healthy snacks at the checkout; and in-store information/advice for customers on healthy eating.

Ranking the retailers overall – Waitrose came in first, followed by Sainsbury’s, with the Co-op third and M&S fourth; Tesco and Safeway took equal fifth place and Asda seventh; Somerfield and Morrisons were placed eighth and ninth.

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The big four – Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons (incorporating Safeway) – all have room for improvement. Sainsbury’s, in second place, scored well on its quality of customer information and on removing snacks from the checkout area, but needs to do more to reduce salt levels and extend labelling, said the NCC. Tesco took the middle ground and is weak in a number of key areas – particularly in reducing salt, the consumer group said, adding that the chain needs to boost its customer information and advice and raise its game on labelling.

“While we weren’t surprised to see Waitrose, a top-end retailer, do relatively well, it’s worrying that we found retailers with a high proportion of lower income shoppers appearing to reinforce the health inequalities between rich and poor. The Co-op was the one company that bucked this trend,” Hutton added.

The NCC also looked at a range of everyday foods, including sausages, bread, yoghurt, pasta sauce and pizza, and found huge variations in the amounts of salt, sugar, and fat both between the different supermarkets and also between supermarkets’ own standard ranges and their ‘healthy eating’ options.

The NCC is calling for retailers to develop clear targets for improvements across the NCC health indicators and for the Food Standards Agency and Department of Health to audit progress of the supermarkets each year.

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