Amid delays to HFSS restrictions and growing concerns around ultra-processed foods, campaigners are calling on food manufacturers and retailers to set a precedent for public health. But how can the industry make its food healthier? 

Most food manufacturers and retailers are working towards their own health targets, whether that’s reducing the proportion of their sales from HFSS foods or limiting portion sizes.

But as Britain grapples with an obesity crisis and increasing research links ultra-processed foods to chronic illnesses, is the food and beverage industry working quickly enough to make a positive impact on public health?

From reformulations to ad bans and promoting healthier products in store, we asked four public health campaigners what they think food manufacturers and retailers should be doing differently to nurture better eating habits.

Caroline Cerny, director of policy & engagement, Bite Back

CC_The Grocer

Cerny: ‘Responsible businesses should already be phasing out HFSS advertising’

What could food manufacturers do to better support healthy eating?

The food industry doesn’t need to wait until October 2025 to implement HFSS legislation. Responsible businesses should be phasing out HFSS advertising. They should also introduce clear and transparent labelling, removing health and nutrition claims or child-appealing features from the packaging of HFSS products.

Which businesses are setting the best examples?

Healthier sales targets aren’t a silver bullet, but they can stimulate meaningful change across a business. Danone and Tesco have set their targets as a proportion of total sales, meaning as healthier sales go up, unhealthy sales go down.

According to our recent research, Danone has no child-appealing unhealthy products and Kraft Heinz has just one. Other businesses such as Unilever and Nestlé have reformulated some of their child-appealing products, but they still have some way to go.

How can supermarkets help young people eat healthily?

Young people use supermarkets for meal deals, but a lot of these are unhealthy, with sugary soft drinks, energy drinks and oversized crisps and chocolate bars included. Bite Back’s youth activists want to see supermarkets launch healthier meal deals with more fruit, vegetables, and salad options. We are really disappointed by lack of action on this.

What should the government do to better support healthy eating?

Utilise business rates and tax credits systems to incentivise businesses to commit to healthier sales targets; mandate businesses to report publicly and consistently on health and sustainability metrics; and explore how the successful soft drinks industry levy structure could be applied to other unhealthy and highly processed food and drinks.

Healthier sales targets aren’t a silver bullet, but they can stimulate meaningful change across a business

Caroline Cerny, director of policy & engagement, Bite Back


Zoe Davies, nutritionist, Action on Sugar/Salt

Zoe Action on Sugar

Davies: ‘The government must mandate nutrition guidelines for commercial baby food’ 

Why is legislation important in improving the nation’s eating habits?

Legislation is required to improve the accessibility, affordability and availability of healthy food and drink, rather than relying on voluntary guidance for the food industry.

The voluntary salt, sugar and calorie reduction programmes have been developed to reduce salt, sugar and calories in products in a range of categories of food and drink, consumed in and out of the home, made by the food industry. However, progress reports consistently show a lack of impactful reductions. The voluntary sugar reduction policy, for example, was set to achieve a 20% reduction in sugars over four years; it achieved a 3.5% reduction. In comparison, in the same time frame, the mandatory soft drinks industry levy achieved ~45% reduction in sugar.

Which specific healthy eating concern should the government address?

The government must mandate nutrition guidelines for commercial baby and toddler food and drinks. Voluntary guidelines to improve the nutritional content of infant and toddler food and drink has been delayed since 2020. A marketing and labelling consultation focused on these products was promised in 2019 but is yet to be released.

The early years are an essential time to influence a child’s taste preference that will be carried into their adult years. Therefore, exposure to healthy food and drink, less sweet products and a variety of flavours is key.


Read more: Public health experts call for B Corp to introduce nutritional criteria


Mark Wijne, research director, Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI) 

Mark Wijne headshot

Wijne: ‘Danone has shown significant improvement over the past five years’

Does HFSS legislation go far enough? 

HFSS legislation will help address healthier offerings and responsible marketing. But it will require the sector’s long-term full attention and concerted efforts to get to the market transformation needed to ensure at least 50% sales from healthier products.

Are food manufacturers making good progress with healthier innovation?

At an industry aggregate level, ATNI measured the healthiness scores of 16 large multinational food and beverage manufacturers active in the UK in 2019 and 2021. The average score for more than 4,200 products assessed was low, at 2.2 Health Stars out of 5. However, the proportion of sales of products meeting a ‘healthy’ threshold of 3.5 stars increased from 22% in 2019 to 29% in 2021. This is progress, but we would like to see an aggregate score of 50% by 2030, so there is a lot of work to do.

Which food manufacturers are setting a good example?

Between the two UK Product Profiles ATNI published in 2019 and 2021, Danone showed the biggest improvement in health scores, and derived almost 77% of its sales from healthier products. PepsiCo also increased its mean Health Star rating because of changes in its product mix, with an estimated 50% of sales in the UK for the company from healthier products.

Can ultra-processed foods (UPFs) ever be healthy?

ATNI published a discussion paper on processed foods in April 2023 pointing out the limitations of methods used to classify levels of food processing. We see there is enough evidence from cohort studies showing consumption of highly processed foods is associated with adverse health outcomes. However, the mechanisms causing adverse health are insufficiently researched to know which types of UPF to avoid completely, consume in moderation or consume as part of a healthy diet.

We don’t yet know which types of UPF to avoid completely, consume in moderation or consume as part of a healthy diet

Mark Wijne, research director, Access to Nutrition Initiative (ATNI)


Ali Morpeth, registered public health nutritionist (RNutr)


Morpeth: ‘Supermarkets should reformulate their products in line with government targets’ 

Why are health campaigners concerned about public health?

We are living in food environments where unhealthy choices are easier, cheaper and more convenient than healthier ones, and children are paying the price for this with their health. Two in five children in England leave primary school above a healthy weight, and the UK has the third highest level of obesity in Europe.

Impact reaches beyond the individual, creating negative externalities across the entire economy. Obesity is estimated to cost the UK £98bn a year when expenses relating to NHS, social care, lost productivity, workforce inactivity, and welfare payments are taken into account.

What should food manufacturers do to better support healthy eating?

Manufacturers should reformulate their products to make them healthier. The government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme challenged industry to achieve a 20% reduction in sales-weighted averages of sugar by 2020 (from a 2015 baseline). Overall, progress has been very limited and some large companies have actually sold more unhealthy products. A move to make these targets mandatory would level the playing field and incentivise all companies to make and sell healthier food.

What could supermarkets do to help?

The first thing supermarkets can do is implement the existing HFSS restrictions in good faith, by following the location restrictions. Lack of enforcement by local authorities has led to some supermarkets showing disregard for existing HFSS policy implementation whilst others follow the letter of the law.

Some retailers have shown leadership by going beyond current legislation. For example, Sainsbury’s and Tesco have implemented restrictions of multibuy promotions on less healthy foods despite the government delay.

Supermarkets should also reformulate their own-brand products in line with government targets on sugar, salt and calorie reduction. Plus, they could restrict marketing of unhealthy foods to children and rebalance advertising spend so their biggest investments are made in healthy foods