How retailers can be part of the solution to ultra-processed food

07 June 2023, 10:42 AM
  • Scientists and researchers have compelling data, showing ultra-processed food could be responsible for a number of health conditions – we explore why and how fine food retailers can help
How retailers can be part of the solution to ultra-processed food

A recent Panorama documentary exposed the potentially harmful effects of ultra-processed food (UPF), putting the spotlight on what’s considered to be an immediate public health emergency.

However, with the cost-of-living crisis causing consumers to feel both financially and time poor, sales of ultra-processed food are on the rise. 

As Mark Kacary, managing director at The Norfolk Deli, explained, “The irony is that we are faced with a 24hr world where we are expected to be always available, to be always switched on, leaving many people feeling as though there is no time for anything other than ‘convenience food’ which can be thrown into the microwave and reheated within minutes, tasting as good as the day it was created.”

Government pushing UPFs as ‘healthy choices’
The government’s Food Scanner app has recently come under fire for labelling ultra-processed food, such as biscuits, cakes, chocolate puddings and crisps, as ‘healthy choices’ for children.

This is worrying as, according to the European Journal of Nutrition, in Britain around 60% of our daily calorie intake is from UPF – or more for teenagers and young people.

As Cathy Cliff, campaign coordinator at the Soil Association, explained, “We are deeply concerned about the influence of the food and drink industry over UK health policy. Our government is actively promoting ultra-processed foods to cash-strapped families while MPs are walking out of parliament carrying giant bars of Cadbury’s chocolate. Why does the UK government think this is appropriate? 

“Ultra-processed foods make up almost two-thirds of British children’s diets. And yet the Food Scanner app continues to tell families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis that biscuits, energy drinks and other products with no nutritional value are good choices.

“Our government should be more concerned about kids’ health and the impact on the NHS than corporate profits.”

How fine food retail can help
Fine food retailers are in a unique position to educate customers about the importance of real food, making the connection between farm and fork. 

According to Rob Percival, head of food policy at the Soil Association, “There is plenty that retailers can do to get ahead – independent farm shops and delis are agile enough to switch direction fast – this is an opportunity for them to promote healthy food farmed in nature-friendly ways.”

Indeed, as Mark explained, there are a number of initiatives farm shops, delis and other independent retailers are already undertaking to champion real food. “Beautiful displays of locally grown fresh vegetables, locally made produce using local ingredients, a proper fish counter, and a meat counter using locally slaughtered meat that isn’t imported from countries thousands of miles away.”

There is a bigger issue at play, though, as Mark added. “The unfortunate thing is that, if your shop is (as is ours) in a small Victorian seaside resort with three mid-sized supermarkets always within one mile of each other, whatever we try, falls on deaf ears. 

“We shout loud about the quality of our products, but the price and lack of real alternatives to the power of the supermarket makes us feel a little like King Canute stubbornly trying to change the direction of the tide by will alone.”

The problem with the food system
According to Rebecca Tobi, senior business engagement manager at The Food Foundation, “Commercial incentives for food businesses favour less healthy foods. The greatest profits for food manufacturers lie in the sale of ultra-processed foods which are often high in fat, salt and sugar.”

This is the problem fine food retailers face when seeking to champion high-quality real food. As Mark explains, “Listen to the government speak about the food industry and it is clear they champion supermarkets above anybody else. 

“Every government talks about how a supermarket can do more to reduce the price of a basket full of shopping. During the pandemic, apart from supermarkets the rest of us who were open and serving the public rarely if ever got a mention. The government (red or blue) is to blame. Supermarkets have been allowed to dominate the landscape in a way that is not replicated on the continent.”

Rob added, “Government intervention is needed – cash-strapped families deserve better advice, and the least they can do is remove their endorsement from these foods. They had planned to restrict promotions and multi-buy deals of foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar, but disappointingly u-turned last year.”

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