A report today “names and shames” leading food companies for having ranges dominated by HFSS products that are extensively marketed at children.

Research conducted by Oxford University, for youth activist campaign group Bite Back, claims seven of the top 10 global food manufacturers have business models that are hugely reliant on the sale on unhealthy food.

Companies including Ferrero (100%), Mondelez (98%), Unilever (84%), Kellogg’s, (77%),  Nestlé (70%), Mars (72%)  and PepsiCo (68%) all achieve more than two-thirds of their food and drink sales in the UK from unhealthy products, the report claims.

The researchers analysed 241 packaged food and drink brands, including more than 5,000 products, and concluded the business models of the biggest, most successful global food companies operating in the UK are reliant on selling food and drinks that harm children’s health.

The research also claims companies are spending huge fortunes targeting young people with advertising. The companies studied spent £55m in 2022 on online ads alone for HFSS products, the report found. 

It calls on the businesses involved to “stop misleading young people” with marketing tactics, including advertising and packaging that deliberately targets children and young people, and health claims that hide the unhealthy aspects of their products.

Bite Back says the findings show a need for a voluntary “phasing out” of HFSS ads, ahead of the governments delayed junk food crackdown, as well as the extension of the soft drinks sugar ley to other categories.

The report urges the government to revive the shelved plans for a crackdown on HFSS ads and a ban on HFSS ads online.

“Our research shows while food companies say they are part of the solution, in reality their business model is based on successfully promoting unhealthy food to children,” said Bite Back CEO James Toop.

“We are sleepwalking into a preventable health crisis. Both government and businesses need to take action so manufacturers sell more healthy food and stop the advertising and misleading tactics that target young people.”  

“These findings are consistent with other research that has shown the reliance leading food and drink companies have on sales of unhealthy products,” added researcher Dr Lauren Bandy, of the University of Oxford.

“These businesses dominate the market, and while many claim they are making progress to reformulate and make their products healthier, we need stronger commitments and a greater rate of change if we are to see a meaningful reduction in diet-related disease, both in the UK and globally.”

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Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser, backed the calls.

“The young people at the heart of Bite Back have rightly called time on an industry that is maximising profit over their health. We now need to listen to them and put their voices and interests at the heart of political and business decision-making,” he said.

“The evidence set out in this report highlights the need for urgent action – from the food industry itself and from the government to ensure businesses don’t shirk their responsibilities and continue to fail future generations of children.”

An FDF spokeswoman said: ”The food and drink industry understands how important good health in childhood is.  We know it’s critical that children thrive and grow up to be healthy adults. We take very seriously our responsibility to ensure that families have a range of balanced options to choose from when they shop.

“To that end, we’re continuing to invest and innovate in order to provide healthier options, including by changing recipes to remove calories, add fibre, fruit and vegetables and provide smaller portions. We are also working with regulators to help the industry prepare for the advertising restrictions on food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt that will come into force in October 2025.“

A  Nestlé spokeswoman said:  “At Nestlé, we understand the need for positive change within the food system, as well as our role in the process. We are not as reliant on unhealthy product sales, as the report suggests.

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

“Nestlé globally has set high ambitions to grow the sales of the more nutritious part of the portfolio, among other initiatives as part of our global nutrition strategy, and we have a strict marketing to children policy in place.

“The huge discrepancy between this report and our published data is due to a vastly different scope, diverse methodologies and inconsistencies in HFSS calculations and demonstrates the importance of a consistent approach to reporting.

“We are supportive of transparent reporting and welcome any efforts to help harmonise industry reporting.

“We also hope our voluntary actions and commitments will inspire the rest of the industry and help facilitate a wider collaboration to improve the food system all together.”

Meanwhile Nestlé, was also criticised by heath campaign groups for including products such as coffee in its figures used to calculate the proportion of healthy products its sells.

ShareAction consumer health lead Holly Gabriel said: “Nestlé’s failure to follow government-backed methods for reporting on health makes it impossible to tell whether it is making any progress to help people access healthier products.

“This lack of transparency undermines the company’s commitment to be leaders in ensuring balanced diets are within reach for people around the world.”