Supermarket price deals 'promote unhealthy food'

Supermarkets are actively promoting unhealthy food with price cuts despite concern about obesity, a report claims. At all but one of nine grocery chains checked by the National Consumer Council (NCC) there were twice as many price promotions on "fatty and sugary" products as on fresh fruit and vegetables.

At one store, Somerfield, just 7 per cent of "special deals" involved fresh produce. Health campaigners say price promotions are particularly important because they appeal to lower-income groups whose diets have been improving the least. The Government advises eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables a day.

The survey of 2,346 price deals - typically "buy one get one free" promotions - found that no shops had achieved the NCC's target of having a third of special deals on fruit and vegetables. Marks & Spencer did best with 27 per cent of its special deals involving healthy food. The Co-op was worst: 37 per cent of its promotions were for sugary and fatty food. Next poorest were Tesco and Iceland, both on 35 per cent.

The report concluded that as far as in-store promotions were concerned, most retailers were "undermining" public health goals. But the NCC said there was an overall improvement in the supermarkets' approach to healthy eating. It scored each of the retailers on its health responsibility index, which checks nutritional content, labelling, in-store promotions and customer information and advice.

The Co-op came top of the index, scoring six and a half out of 10, followed by Marks & Spencer and Waitrose on six. Fourth and fifth were Sainsbury's, which improved a little, and Asda, which improved a lot since last year's report on the same subject.

Tesco, Britain's biggest supermarket, came sixth after showing a "modest overall improvement". The chain's overall performance was "pedestrian". Iceland and Somerfield performed poorly, and bottom place was taken by Morrisons despite a "slight improvement" on last year.

The report said supermarkets were starting to decrease the number of "unhealthy" snacks on display at checkouts. Many stores had greatly improved their labelling. There was also praise for salt reduction programmes. The NCC checked 10 common own-label standard products such as baked beans and cornflakes. The Co-op came top for having the least salt, followed by Iceland, Asda, Tesco and Waitrose. But the consumer body said that of all the 82 products surveyed, only five met its target for salt.

"On the basis of this year's figures, we calculate that where you shop could still add as much as 22 per cent more salt to your diet," the report's author, Sue Dibb, said. On fat, research could find "no overall trend towards fat reduction".

Stark variations were found in the amount of sugar. Tesco's economy strawberry yoghurt contained nearly twice as much sugar as Sainsbury's, and Asda's "healthier" tomato ketchup had half the sugar of the Co-op brand.

The NCC chief executive, Ed Mayo, said its study, Healthy Competition, indicated that supermarkets had made progress: they were starting to compete on health as well as price. "The fact that the Co-op has an above-average share of budget-conscious shoppers shows this is not just for the better off," he said.

Morrisons called the study "inaccurate" and said it failed to recognise the progress it had made on healthy meals and salt reduction. Tesco claimed that the NCC study was out of date. Since the study went to print, it had announced it was removing emulsifiers, stabilisers and hydrogenated fats from ready meals.

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