Supermarkets accused of fuelling obesity crisis

The layout, pricing strategies and shopping environment of supermarkets is fuelling the obesity epidemic, according to a study.

The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and Slimming World are calling on supermarkets to do more to tackle obesity following the release of their Health On The Shelf report, which claims that marketing tactics are driving sales of unhealthy products.

More than a third of shoppers (36%) buy unhealthy products on impulse because they are on special offer, a survey for the study suggests, and one in five said supermarkets cause them to go off track when attempting to lose weight.

An audit of small, local supermarkets found that many unhealthy products such as confectionery and crisps are located in multiple prominent areas around the store, including at the end of aisles and around the checkout.

The report recommends a set of key principles to apply to all major supermarket retailers, to include more shelf space for healthier products based on the Government’s Eatwell Guide, recipe cards and cooking demonstrations on how to use ingredients to create healthy meals, and business rate reductions for retailers who adopt the moves.

It also suggests a healthy rating scheme, similar to the Food Standards Agency’s “scores on the doors” hygiene rating scheme, based on the proportion of healthy and unhealthy products stocked.

To coincide with the report, The People’s Supermarket in central London has been redesigned by public health experts to help consumers make healthier choices.

The supermarket features “nudge points” to encourage customers to re-consider their purchases, for example by swapping to a low-fat version, layout and shelf allocation based on what constitutes a balanced diet according to the Eatwell guide, and free samples of cheap and nutritious food with accompanying recipe cards.

RSPH chief executive Shirley Cramer said: “The environment in which we live is a major contributor towards obesity, and supermarkets have both the power and influence as well as a responsibility in tackling their contribution to this ‘obesogenic’ environment.

“There has been some progress by supermarkets in areas such as removing junk from checkouts, but our research shows that shoppers and industry experts feel there is much more supermarkets can and should do to promote healthier choices – reducing the shelf allocation for unhealthy products, providing clearer labelling and signage, and even changing the shopper experience.”

Carolyn Pallister, from Slimming World, said: “Supermarkets will argue that they are giving their customers the choice, and we haven’t removed those choices at Nudge – all we’ve done is made it easier for customers to choose healthier alternatives and put less emphasis on promotions of foods likely to cause weight gain.

“If supermarkets empowered their consumers to make these changes themselves, though, through creating an environment which promoted a healthier diet, they could become part of the solution in helping tackle the obesity epidemic.”

British Retail Consortium spokesman Ewan MacDonald-Russell said: “Retailers have led the way on encouraging consumers to make healthier choices. Fresh fruit and vegetables are heavily price-promoted and are often the first thing shoppers see when entering stores.

“Retailers led the way on reformulating products to reduce salt, sugar, provide healthy eating advice, pioneered the traffic light labelling system and clear energy information to help consumers understand products so they are able to make informed choices.

“Despite all this work, where there is clear evidence specific proportional measures can help consumers the retail industry is open to Government action – for example, around multi-buy promotions.

“It’s worth noting any measures need to apply to all food and drink businesses to ensure the largest number of people possible can benefit from these interventions.“

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