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Food retailers’ promotional strategies – a missed opportunity to improve people’s health

This Salt Awareness Week, we look at how food retailers shape our daily salt intake and its negative health impacts through promotion of unhealthy foods - and how investors can act collaboratively to make them create better food environments.

A healthy diet is a key building block in contributing to an individual’s health.

But an individual's diet is heavily influenced by wider determinants including the environment in which they find themselves, and the products that companies promote.

Each year, Action on Salt organises a national “Salt Awareness Week” to raise awareness of the effect of too much salt on our health.

This week (14th-20th March 2022) they have been shining a light on the salt content of our favourite food products, particularly those included in high street store meal deal combos.

Adults should eat no more than 6g of salt per day, but the average person in the UK is thought to eat around 8g per day (PHE, 2016). Too much salt in someone’s diet can raise blood pressure, increasing the risk of heart disease and stroke.

Retailers contribute hugely to our daily salt intake

Action on Salt’s recent report on the nutritional value of meal deal combos at eight high street stores found that:

  • Almost three quarters of snacks included in these deals are dangerously high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). The worst offender, Co-op Lemon and Coriander Green Olives, has 2.02g salt per pack – almost a third of overall daily intake.
  • Nearly one in three snacks in these deals exceed their maximum salt target, including Ginsters Cornish Pasty 180g (1.89g of salt, more salt than 5.5 packets of ready salted crisps) and Jacob’s mini cheddars 50g (1.2g of salt, more salt than 3 Mini Baybel)

Around one in three people buy a meal deal at least twice a week. This daily promotion of products high in salt across retailers is therefore having a hugely negative impact on people’s health.

Retailers have a big influence over the food available to us

These findings show that manufacturers and retailers need to do more to support better diets.

In spite of voluntary government salt reduction targets, manufacturers and retailers are continuing to flood the market with unhealthy products.

Some retailers are performing better than others: Sainsbury’s snacks rank more favourably. According to Action on Salt’s report, Sainsbury's offers a higher proportion of non-HFSS snacks, which are closer to the regulation targets. Meanwhile, Asda and Subway have the highest proportion (82 per cent) of HFSS snacks in their meal deals.

In December 2021, we shared similar findings from the research foundation Questionmark. It tracked all promotions of food products in the four biggest supermarkets – Asda, Morrisons, Sainsbury’s and Tesco.

The research found that up to 43 per cent of the promotions held across the stores over a five week period were for unhealthy products, and 50 per cent of meal deal product promotions were high in fat, salt or sugar.

This shows that companies are missing out on an opportunity to support better health and stay clear of possible further regulations in this space.

Investors have the power to change our food environment

We need to create healthier food environments for the UK’s physical and economic health.

According to Public Health England, a reduction in average salt intake from 8g to 6g per day is estimated to prevent over 8000 premature deaths each year and save the NHS over £570 million annually.

Through our Healthy Markets initiative and investor coalition, we influence manufacturers, such as Unilever, and retailers, such as Tesco, to encourage these companies to increase their reporting and set targets on their proportion of sales from healthy products.

Given that UK consumers spent £96 billion on food and non-alcoholic drinks in the grocery sector, if retailers were to prioritise and promote healthy products, they could have a huge impact on the nation’s diet.

Investors have the power to change to shape our food environments for the better, and the Healthy Markets Initiative is the way to make it a reality.

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