A UK consumer body has criticised supermarkets over the healthiness of their products.

Where UK consumers shop can have a significant impact on their health, according to a new National Consumer Council (NCC) study. The findings increase pressure on the main retailers to do more to tackle the country’s obesity crisis. They also reflect the long-running battle that manufacturers and retailers face in making products healthier, while maintaining the food’s sensory benefits. 

The NCC study gives an overall score to each of the main UK supermarkets for their contribution to a healthy diet, based on factors such as how much salt they have in their own-label processed foods, how good their nutrition labelling and advice is, and whether they promote junk foods more than healthy fresh foods in their stores.

Although the researchers found “some positives”, they were also eager to point out that “not a single one did well across all our health indicators”. Huge variations between amounts of salt, fat and sugar were found in everyday items such as bread, sausages, pasta sauce and pizza. Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and Co-op topped the table, while Asda, Somerfield and WM Morrison fared the worst.

Supermarkets that are widely seen as focusing on price – such as Asda, Morrison and Somerfield – all did poorly in the survey. The report therefore suggests that supermarkets’ pricing policies are increasing the inequalities between the diet and health of more affluent consumers and low-income shoppers.

The report will no doubt intensify pressure on the food industry to take up recommendations in the recent public health white paper on cutting salt, sugar and fat in processed foods and using indicators such as ‘traffic light’ labelling to help shoppers work out which foods are good and bad.

However, both manufacturers and retailers remain trapped by the fact that great tasting products are the number one consumer need and purchase motivation in most categories. Removing unhealthy attributes typically detracts from the sensory benefits of a product. It is therefore likely that moves to remove ‘bad ingredients’ will be done gradually to minimise the potential of a consumer backlash.

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