Health campaigners have slammed a government healthy eating app funded by the NHS for promoting thousands of HFSS and “ultra-processed” food products.

An investigation by the Soil Association revealed the NHS Food Scanner App, which launched a year ago last month, recommends biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate puddings and fizzy drinks, among other items that are “good” options for a healthy diet.

Energy drinks and pot noodles are also endorsed by the app, which has been downloaded more than half a million times by members of the public since it was unveiled as an extension of the now defunct Public Health England’s Good Choice logo, which was first rolled out in 2019.

The app allows families to scan barcodes on food items to generate a healthier suggestion as an alternative, and was billed as a way to encourage more families to swap unhealthy options in their diets.

The Good Choice badge was supposed to be used to highlight foods that are in line with the government’s current dietary recommendations for added sugar, saturated fat and salt.

However, the Soil Association, which submitted multiple Freedom of Information requests to the Department of Health & Social Care (DHSC) about its relationship with big business, said it had obtained a list of almost 20,000 products awarded the badge. They included artificially sweetened chewing gum, sweets, fizzy drinks, cordials and yoghurts; processed meat; biscuits; scotch pancakes; cakes and chocolate puddings, it said.

It said the list included more than 900 fizzy drink products, and while low-calorie energy drinks did not receive a Good Choice badge, instead they got a “thumbs-up” on the scanner.

The Soil Association listed products including Jacob’s Mini Cheddars, Nestlé Aero mousses, Unilever Pot Noodles, Mr Kipling cakes and Pepsi Max.

Other product types given the NHS seal of approval included crisps and packaged snacks, chocolate, confectionery, ice cream, biscuits, pastries and cakes.

The government has had a troubled history with the launch of apps designed to tackle obesity. In 2016 PHE’s Sugar Smart app was revealed to have been riddled with errors, though on that occasion it was the food industry up in arms.

“We are shocked to see the government not only ignoring the health risks around ultra-processed foods, but actively encouraging families to consume them,” said Soil Association campaign co-ordinator Cathy Cliff.

“It seems like the government is more concerned about corporate profits than children’s health.

“When every penny counts, it is near criminal that families are being misled to waste money on junk food that doesn’t fill you up with anything other than health risks.

“The government’s dietary advice is severely out of date and its failure to provide good advice is putting us all at risk. It is wrong that fizzy drinks and crisps are being promoted to children.

Cliff added: “The government’s Better Health campaign has been linked to commercial food businesses from the start, with its initial iteration launching in partnership with Tesco, Asda, PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, the Co-operative Group, Spar, Costcutter, and Nisa. With junk food manufacturers endorsed by the Good Choice badge, it is unforgivable that a public health campaign is at times benefiting food businesses more than families.”

Tam Fry, spokesman for the National Obesity Forum, added: “It is astonishing that an NHS healthy eating app is pushing this food without considering how it is produced.

“The government should be recommending healthy foods, such as fresh fruit & vegetables, rather than just more junk food with a little less sugar.

“This app needs to be reviewed as it certainly won’t improve the nation’s health in its current form.”

A DHSC spokesman said: “Diets high in ultra-processed foods are also high in calories, sugar, saturated fat and salt, which can cause chronic illnesses including cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, and some cancers.

“The Food Scanner app helps families to see what’s in their food and drinks and gives choices of products that can help them cut down on sugar, saturated fat and salt, including alternatives to family favourites such as biscuits, crisps and fizzy drinks.

“We are always looking to improve the app experience, including extending and personalising messaging around different food and drink categories and we welcome feedback from parents as well as organisations to aid us in this process.”