Two-Thirds of the UK’s Biggest Food Companies Make Money from Unhealthy Products Marketed to Children


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Seven of the 10 largest food companies are reliant on unhealthy products for a majority of their sales in the UK, with each of these using influential child-appealing packaging, finds a new report.

In the UK, one in three children are overweight or living with obesity by the time they leave primary school. Nearly a million children suffer from type 2 diabetes. Over a third are at risk of developing a food-related illness in the future. Meanwhile, 95% are exceeding the daily recommended amount of sugar, and 66% are doing so for salt. And only 9% are meeting their fruit and vegetable requirements.

But this perhaps hardly comes as a surprise when you find out that seven of the ten biggest food and drink manufacturers make a majority of their money through the sales of unhealthy products, which are usually presented in packaging designed to appeal to children.

These are the findings of research conducted by the University of Oxford on behalf of Bite Back, a UK-based youth activist movement shedding light on the failures of the food system. Titled Fuel Us, Don’t Fool Us, it analysed the sales of 10 of the leading food and drink companies in the UK to explore who benefits from unhealthy products – for the purposes of this report, these are defined as foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) – and how this affects the youth “cultural wallpaper” that is junk food in the UK.

Ferrero and Mondelez have the unhealthiest portfolio, Danone the least

junk food children
Courtesy: Bite Back

The 10 companies investigated by Bite Back – Ferrero, Mondelez International, Unilever, Kellogg’s, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Kraft Heinz and Danone – are the makers of some of the most popular packaged food and drink products. Think Ben & Jerry’s, Ferrero Rocher, Dairy Milk, Nutella, Kit Kat, Pepsi, Coke and Corn Flakes, to name just a few.

The report found that in 2022, the majority of the sales for seven of these 10 companies came from foods classed as HFSS. Of these, Ferrero has the unhealthiest portfolio, with all of its sales coming from such products, followed by Mondelez, which had the highest unhealthy food sales at £2.8B (accounting for 98% of the total). Unilever and Kellogg’s (now Kellanova) followed suit with 84% and 77%, respectively.

On the other end of the spectrum, Danone has the lowest amount of unhealthy foods in its lineup, making up only 2% of its total sales. Kraft Heinz and Coca-Cola are the only others that have less than half of their sales made up by HFSS (33% and 36%, respectively). “These businesses have portfolios that are more weighted to products that don’t meet the HFSS threshold such as dairy products, bottled water, savoury products and lower sugar drinks,” explained the report.

While this data is from 2022, and figures and portfolios may have changed, at the time, these businesses were reliant on selling products usually not included in the UK’s dietary guidelines, with the top five food and drink categories being chocolate, savoury snacks, reduced sugar soft drinks, regular soft drinks and ice cream. None of these are part of the Eatwell Guide, which outlines food groups that contribute to healthy and sustainable eating habits.

In response, Unilever said in a statement: “Bite Back’s analysis captures only 63% of Unilever’s UK portfolio (648 products across 26 brands). Using Unilever’s own published data, capturing 100% of our product portfolio (1031 products across 34 brands) as of 2022, 32% of our UK portfolio is non-HFSS.”

Likewise, Nestlé said: “This report excludes the sales of over half of our products in scope of the UK Nutrient Profiling Model including coffee and coffee mixes which are more than 98% non-HFSS. We publish data regarding the status of our entire portfolio with HFSS products accounting for only 27% of our portfolio in 2022.”

Packaging has a major impact on children’s food choices

junk food advertising ban uk
Courtesy: Bite Back

Research has linked food advertising and the products kids prefer to eat. In 2017, British children saw around 15 billion online adverts and 3.6 billion TV commercials for HFSS products – but this is an underestimate as it excludes other forms of advertising, including out-of-home.

In 2022, all food manufacturers in the UK spent £55M million on online adverts for their products in four categories associated with children’s excess sugar and calorie intake (biscuits, chocolate, crisps and ice cream). Of this, £50M (91%) was spent by seven of the top 10 companies – the same ones with HFSS foods making up the majority of their sales – resulting in 6.5 billion advertising exposures.

“The losers are children, with a bombardment of junk food advertising endangering their health,” states the report. The same seven companies use child-appealing packaging for their HFSS products, with cartoon characters, playful images and toy- or animal-shaped products all designed to target kids.

Bite Back cited a survey that found over half of the food and drink SKUs that use cartoon animations to appeal to children are HFSS, but government regulations to protect this cohort from junk food advertising don’t include packaging.

Recommendations for manufacturers and lawmakers

uk hfss regulation
Courtesy: Bite Back

The report suggests that manufacturers can reformulate their recipes to make them healthier, which includes decreasing sugar, salt and fat content, and increasing fibre. “Reformulation is an example of ‘health by stealth’ where changes are made gradually, without customers noticing,” it says.

Bite Back recommends that businesses set a healthier food sales target, address unhealthy marketing by phasing out HFSS advertising and introducing transparent labelling (including the removal of nutritional claims and cartoons on unhealthy products), and set a science-based 1.5°C-aligned target to halve emissions by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050.

“In 2022, we set a new ambition to make half our snacks sales come from healthier alternatives by 2025, targeting 30% to come from non-HFSS products and 20% from portions of 100 calories or less,” said PepsiCo. “During 2023, we were over halfway to reaching this goal after only a year into an initial three-year investment of £35M to drive product innovation and reformulation.”

There is precedence of government intervention here – the soft drinks industry levy of 2018 removed 47,000 tonnes of sugar from these beverages from 2015, and has been linked to a fall in child obesity as well as hospital admissions for tooth extraction. However, its voluntary sugar reduction programme, which challenged the industry to achieve a 20% reduction in sales-weighted averages of sugar by 2020, hasn’t been as successful: the sector only reduced this figure by 3.5%, while overall sales of sugar actually increased by 7.1%.

UK policymakers should introduce legislation that restricts the marketing of HFSS foods across all channels (whether that’s TV, outdoor, digital or something else), mandates colour-coded front-of-pack labels and stops the use of child-appealing cartoons and packaging, requires businesses to publicly and consistently report data on HFSS sales and sustainability, and incentivises healthier food and drink production beyond the sugar tax.

“Business and governments hold the levers of change,” the report concludes. “We now need action.”

Author

  • Anay Mridul

    Anay is Green Queen's resident news reporter. Originally from India, he worked as a vegan food writer and editor in London, and is now travelling and reporting from across Asia. He's passionate about coffee, plant-based milk, cooking, eating, veganism, food tech, writing about all that, profiling people, and the Oxford comma.


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