Junk food takeaway kebab shop street

Source: Getty

We need government intervention focused on tackling our unhealthy and unequal food environments

Long before Henry Dimbleby’s latest recommendations on the National Food Strategy, it was clear that our food system was negatively impacting the population’s health, driving a decades-long cycle of supply and demand for food that is nutritionally low in value. We need radical change so that families living on the lowest incomes and in the most deprived areas can eat healthier and be healthier. 

Our diets are shaped by our surroundings. For the past five years at Impact on Urban Health we have been focused on changing the food available to children and families in the places they live, go to school, and shop. We know a child from a family living on lower income is more likely to grow up in a neighbourhood where they are flooded with products high in fat, salt, sugar and low in nutrients. They also have less money and often less time and headspace to withstand these pressures.

Changing the ‘junk food cycle’ and redesigning our unhealthy and unequal food system requires a seriously disruptive force. Responsibility for meaningful change cannot sit solely with individuals and organisations – this is a collective problem that needs government intervention focused on tackling our unhealthy and unequal food environments, not on driving individual behaviour change. 

Initiatives that assume people are low on money, time, and headspace are the only ones with any evidence of working at scale to change diets, while also reducing inequalities. Government health interventions tend to ignore these real-world and commercial aspects – either through an overemphasis on individual education and weight management support, or by viewing commercial markets as something in opposition to public health intervention.

We’d like to see companies working toward the goal of decoupling overall sales growth from the sale of unhealthy products. Food retailers make crucial decisions on the products placed in shops, and how they are priced and promoted. With 80% of household food spend happening in supermarkets, these decisions influence – potentially more than any other factor – what people buy, and ultimately eat. Our work with the Consumer Goods Forum showed that with practical in-store changes to pricing and promotion, companies were able to increase sales of healthier foods, and reduce sales of unhealthy foods, with no negative impact on business.


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The food industry has impressive research, development, and innovation capabilities that it can put towards producing healthier products while also meeting people’s needs for affordability, convenience and taste. Our pilot programme, Good Food Fund, which supports healthier challenger brands to scale and provides consumers with better choices, proves it can make commercial sense to replace popular HFSS products with healthier alternatives.

To make a true impact on population health, these industry interventions must happen quickly and at scale. For this to be achievable, the commercial risk of implementing them needs to be reduced. Only the government has the levers to make this happen.

The Soft Drinks Industry Levy proved that this can work in practice and led to many companies reformulating their products, removing over 300,000 tonnes of sugar from customers’ baskets. While the industry has made some progress on areas in line with the voluntary PHE targets, the pace has been slower. Extending this type of fiscal measure like the soft drinks levy – as the proposed sugar and salt reformulation tax does – across food product categories, would give it the coverage it needs to make a serious impact and drive the pace of change required.

More broadly, government needs to stop viewing commercial markets as something in opposition to, or wholly separate from, public health intervention. The Healthy Markets campaign we fund through ShareAction demonstrates through investor dialogue that company action on health is linked to their bottom line. Longer-term trends suggest that demand for responsible industry behaviour on health is only set to increase. The campaign calls for companies to disclose (and improve on) the percentage of their sales from healthy vs unhealthy food products. Creating a standardised metric, and disclosure against this, will help all companies go further and faster in improving the healthiness of consumers’ baskets.

Food environments are the biggest factor influencing obesity levels across the UK population, and without action inequalities around diet and health will continue to worsen for those already disadvantaged. Put simply, healthier settings will make healthier diets an easier reality for everyone. If acted upon, the recommendations in the National Food Strategy can work at scale to tackle obesity and create a level playing field where commercial risk is mitigated, allowing companies to create environments that are good for both public health and business.