The government’s decision to postpone bans on advertising for junk food and multibuy deals on salty and sugary snacks in the UK is understandable, but it also raises some difficult questions.
All of us are feeling the cost of living crunch at the moment, and measures to save consumers some cash (and help businesses with their bottom line) are welcome. Yet, by promoting food that is often worst for us, policymakers are gambling with the public’s long-term health.
Most people are looking to retailers to help them make healthier choices, not push HFSS foods at the end of every aisle. Tesco, which announced it will go ahead with axing volume promotions on HFSS products from October anyway, has published customer data showing most people want to eat more healthily, and also want help from retailers to do so.
So, while food bills are a hot topic right now, unhealthy food is not a long-term solution. I was recently at the Responsible Food Forum where Anna Taylor from the Food Foundation showed a study on the cheapest versus most expensive yoghurt pots in a supermarket. The difference meant a staggering five extra grams of added sugar per pot. Similarly, a £1 frozen shepherd’s pie (designed to feed a family) included nearly 200 ingredients, which no one outside of a science lab would ever have heard of.
The poorest in society are the most likely to face health issues but are often exposed to the unhealthiest food. So instead of removing a sensible policy to limit this food’s shelf presence, what about policies that promote healthier food?
Equally worrying is that this reversal becomes the status quo, or harms wider upcoming HFSS regulations. The government should give a clear indication as soon as it can on when the junk food ad bans will be reintroduced, but also put in place plans to help businesses manage the change. Big players can weather the transition – Mars has already launched new Bounty, Snickers, Mars and Galaxy bars that are HFSS-compliant – but in these fraught times SMEs and startups will need all the support they can get.
There is a delicate balance to be struck between protecting the economy and protecting public health. The government can’t afford to be heavy handed one way or the other for too long.