Tesco have got a nerve trying to 'encourage' healthy eating when their fruit and veg costs so much

Obesity was a relative rarity until supermarkets started feeding us a  barrel of marketing spin

Share

Tesco has major image difficulties.

Its chronic problem is that communities up and down the land bristle with resentment as yet another of its stores pops up like the proverbial bad penny in their already oversubscribed vicinity. Its more acute problem is that it suffered more than any of its competitors from the horse-meat scandal, so much so that it felt obliged to distribute leaflets and take out humiliating full-page newspaper adverts, apologising for its poor performance and pledging to do better.

But just three months on from its horse-meat embarrassment, it’s apparent that Tesco’s reputation managers have been busy. Forget all that bad news about the retailer “bullying” its way into communities and selling adulterated burgers. Tesco has adopted a fresh, clean image: champion of the nation’s health. It has just unveiled plans to use data on customers’ personal shopping habits gathered from its Clubcard loyalty programme to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis. The detail of how Tesco proposes to set about doing this is, as yet, sketchy. But it says that one possible option might be to reward customers who load up their trolleys with junk, with vouchers for products it deems healthier.

As the UK’s biggest grocery chain, Tesco plays a critical role in influencing what we eat, indeed in helping determine the curves and contours of the nation’s very body shape. But how can we take such posturing seriously from Tesco, or any other supermarket chain, when their aisles are stiff with bumper packs of crisps, fizzy drinks and low-grade processed foods? Any fool can see how expensive nutritious, nutrient-rich food is in supermarkets; the most brazen mark-ups are reserved for fresh fruit and vegetables, precisely the category of food we’re told to consume more of. The junk they sell us is a whole lot cheaper. In fact, wasn’t it supermarkets that made us fat in the first place?

It’s no coincidence that Britain’s eating habits have worsened, just as supermarkets have steadily tightened their oligopolistic grip on the nation’s grocery market. The more we shop in supermarkets, the less we cook, and the less slim and healthy we become. Bad luck? Hardly.

Supermarkets have a direct financial interest in steering us away from raw, unprocessed ingredients, the sort you cook from scratch at home, on to lucrative, value-added, processed food of dubious nutritional provenance. Why? There’s only so much even the most shameless retailer can charge for potatoes, for instance, even if they are some heritage variety, hand-washed in spa water by virgins. But process them into crisps, chips, ready-to-use mash, and you have created a licence to print money.

Until the supermarkets really went for a near-as-damn-it takeover of the UK grocery market in the early 1990s, most people lived on home-cooked food, and were pretty healthy on it. Obesity was a relative rarity. Then our supermarkets fed us a barrel full of self-serving marketing spin. They invented the notion of the “cash-rich/time-poor” shopper, with the attendant implication that if you have time to cook you must be a loser.

Supermarkets actively encouraged our dependence on a processed food diet, because it suits their bottom line. When the results of this disastrous switch in eating habits could no longer be contained, much like a bulging abdomen, they promptly reinvented themselves as doughty fighters for the nation’s health, responsibly nudging an errant Billy Bunter of a nation into making a “healthier choice”. The tone of this latest Tesco health initiative is predictably patronising. “Our customers have told us they’d like help in choosing healthy options,” says Tesco boss Philip Clarke. He says that 65 per cent of its customers say their lifestyle is not as healthy as they would like. Subtext: “It’s the customers’ fault if they get fat and ill, not ours. What we sell has nothing to do with it.”

Post Horsegate more people are cynical about supermarket products, so the chains are even more at pains to stress their health credentials. Tesco, for instance, trumpets that it’s teaming up with Diabetes UK to research eating habits. This may sound progressive, but like other health charities, this organisation works with companies that have financial interests in the pharmaceutical and food industries, which may influence its interpretation of data and policy goals somewhat.

Playing the public health card also guarantees supermarkets a place at the government top table. Tesco’s online tool – the “healthy little differences tracker” – will contribute data on customers’ eating habits to government research into obesity. Now this is worrying. What you have is powerful companies that make a major contribution to obesity and ill-health spoon-feeding government data, bending the ear of regulators. In this way, supermarkets worm their way into the heart of decision-making about ill-health and bad nutrition, unchallenged about their role in encouraging it.

The bottom line is that all supermarket initiatives on healthier eating need to be treated with deep suspicion. One of the best things that most of us could do to improve our health and wellbeing would be to stop shopping routinely in supermarkets, break our dependence on convenience food and cook more from scratch. That’s the obvious “lifestyle change” that Britain needs to adopt if we are ever to halt our downward spiral into obesity and diet-related disease.

Joanna Blythman’s latest book is ‘What To Eat: Food that’s good for your health, pocket and plate’, published by Fourth Estate

 

Reponse from Barbara Young, Chief Executive, Diabetes UK

Our work with food and pharmaceutical companies doesn't influence our “interpretation of data and policy goals”. Diabetes UK has a long history of providing evidence-based advice to people with diabetes and those at risk of Type 2 diabetes.

We are pleased to have been chosen as Tesco's National Charity Partner because it means we will be able to spend £10 million on research into a vaccine for Type 1 diabetes and on supporting those who have diabetes or are at risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

But this has zero influence on what we think about the issues relating to Type 2 diabetes prevention and the facts on this speak for themselves. We took a strong stand on food policy when we decided not to sign up for the Responsibility Deal. We also have a track record of advising people to maintain a healthy weight to reduce risk of Type 2 diabetes.

The idea that accepting money from companies inevitably impacts on our independence just does not reflect the reality of the situation.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: Why it won’t be the i wot won it – our promise to you

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor