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Supermarkets can be our allies in tackling the childhood obesity timebomb

Supermarkets can be our allies in tackling the childhood obesity timebomb

Fruit and vegetables and other healthy foods should be positioned prominently, writes Steve McCabe MP. | PA Images

4 min read

Supermarkets have a major role to play in the drive to improve the nation’s health, but their potential is yet untapped.

Childhood obesity is the time bomb that will increasingly affect our lives and wellbeing. Diabetes UK reports that one in three children in primary schools in England currently suffer from excess weight, increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on A Fit and Healthy Childhood’s latest report Healthy Families: The present and future role of the supermarket sets out to investigate the role supermarkets might play in tackling this problem. It doesn’t seek to cast them as the villains but rather recognises the influence they have and how it might be used positively.

Supermarkets have always occupied a special place in our psyche. It was Jonathan Sacks who suggested: “A Martian would think that the English worship at supermarkets, not in churches.”

From a mere 10 self-service stores in 1947 to around 3,500 by 1969, supermarkets have established themselves as a key element of our shopping experience. Store layout, daily promotions and sensory cues are all part of a formidable arsenal designed to encourage customer purchases, often regardless of the nutritional value of the product.

Price promotion is a key element in the strategy. A Cancer Research UK report in 2019 argued that three in 10 food and drink purchases are determined by price. The households making the greatest use of price promotion also bought more products high in fat, salt and sugar. The upper quartile of promotional purchasers are 43% more likely to be overweight than the lower quartile, irrespective of income and age demographics.

Lack of money is the biggest driver of food poverty, low-income families are therefore nudged by economic factors towards a diet characterised by highly processed, calorie-dependent foods with less fibre, vitamin and mineral content.

Supermarkets are the largest food source for families in England and could support disadvantaged households in making healthy choices. There are good examples in other countries. Since 2000 there has been a requirement in Finland for a “healthy heart choice” symbol to be displayed on over 1100 products. In New York over 170 supermarkets participated in an ‘eye level’ promotion which boosted the sale of low-calorie drinks and In Israel, co-operatives sponsor community physical activity, as does Sainsbury’s in this country. 

The Obesity Health Alliance’s 2018 report focused on prime locations stores use for selling goods. It found that 43% of food and drink promotions situated in prominent places, such as entrances, checkouts and aisle ends concentrated on high sugar food and drink products. Fruit and vegetables accounted for less than 1% of products promoted in such locations.

Supermarkets have a major role to play in the drive to improve the nation’s health, but their potential is yet untapped. I acknowledge some of the good initiatives. Tesco’s free fruit for kids and “helpful little swaps” are welcome, as is Sainsbury’s investment in reducing the cost of fruit and vegetables and its measures to end multi-buy promotions but more is needed. Fruit and vegetables and other healthy foods should be positioned prominently. Price discounts and multi-buy promotions should cease or be switched to healthy foods.

A Diabetes UK survey revealed that 82% of adults favour front-of-pack traffic light labelling. Supermarkets should ensure that all customers have access to accurate, nutritional and value-for-money information on all products and Government should take advantage of the post EU era to mandate such labelling.

I don’t want the Government to bludgeon supermarkets in the battle against child obesity. I want supermarkets to be partners. We need to utilise the public’s love of supermarkets to provide more information and health and education campaigns and to emphasise the importance of shopping lists and planning meals but we should also be prepared to legislate on issues like price and multi-buy promotions.

Supermarkets must use their influence to play their full part in helping us tackle the problem of childhood obesity.


Steve McCabe MP is the MP for Birmingham Selly Oak and Chair of the APPG for a Fit and Healthy Childhood.

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