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Food

Obesity, food poverty and the big changes coming to supermarkets 

New legislation restricting high fat, salt and sugar foods does not address the price of a healthy diet, says Sofia Antona

 In October, promotions of unhealthy or HFSS (high fat, salt, sugar) foods will be restricted across UK supermarkets, significantly changing the food retail environment as we know it.  

Foods such as crisps, pizzas and chocolate will no longer be promoted or positioned in prominent locations on the end of aisles or at store entrances. Three for two deals, BOGOFs and tins of Christmas chocolates at checkouts will be a thing of the past. But, in the face of the cost-of-living crisis and rising food prices, there is a strong food poverty argument that the ongoing obesity epidemic should come second when many are skipping meals and cannot afford to eat. And will these measures even stop
consumers from finding and buying their favourite treats? 

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The comprehensive legislation comes as part of the government’s obesity reduction strategy. Price, promotions and advertising have a huge influence on what foods customers choose to put in their baskets.  

In May, Boris Johnson announced a delay in the legislation until 2023 due to the rising cost of living. The advertising segment of the HFSS ban will be further delayed to 2024. Despite the delay being met with relief by food poverty advocates, several major supermarkets including Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose have committed to continuing to implement the legislation in the name of health.  

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted the fragility of our food system. More and more people depend on foodbanks as rates of food poverty dramatically increase. Described as “apocalyptic” by the Bank of England, the cost-of-living crisis in the UK is only set to get worse. Alongside rises in tax and energy, the average 9.8 per cent rise in food costs is leaving thousands unable to buy what they need. Over seven million adults in the UK have directly experienced food insecurity in the past month.  

There is a clear food poverty defence that argues the legislation should be fully scrapped until the cost-of-living burden eases, especially as it disproportionally affects those living in poverty. It’s no wonder HFSS foods are shopping-basket staples in a climate where thousands are struggling to afford to eat – unhealthier foods are vastly more accessible and available. Investment into healthier and more sustainable options in the current financial climate is unrealistic.  

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The legislation to make unhealthier foods more expensive does not take into consideration the price of a healthy diet. Before adding barriers to make food less accessible, the government and supermarkets have the responsibility to start to fix our broken food system, in which unhealthy foods are cheaper per calorie than healthy ones.  

According to a report by The Food Foundation, foods high in sugar and fat are just 40 per cent of the cost of fruit and vegetables per 1,000 calories. This uneven playing field means those with the lowest incomes must spend an additional 36 per cent of their disposable income to afford a healthy diet compared to the least deprived populations.

The greatest rises in food costs in recent months have been seen in vegetables, milk, cheese, eggs and meat. As these relatively healthy, nutrient-dense foods become less affordable, consumers will still need to fill up their baskets with something to feed their families. Introducing initiatives and strategies to keep the costs of healthier foods low, rather than just stripping away promotional mechanics that will only make food shopping more expensive, would be a more balanced and welcome approach. 

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A positive outcome of the HFSS legislation is the development of new or healthier versions of HFSS foods by food manufacturers. These products comply with the restrictions and are theoretically healthier for us. Walkers reduced-salt crisps, Weetabix-baked Golden Syrup cereal and Maynards’ lower-sugar products are already on the shelves. Despite optimism that switching from junk foods to healthier alternatives will be straightforward for consumers, time will tell whether supermarkets will promote and keep healthier alternatives at low prices.  A 4x39g pack of Mars Bars costs £1.25 at Tesco – a strategic Aldi price match. The healthier Mars Triple Treat 4x 32g pack currently costs 50p more.  

With the next months set to see sizeable increases in the cost of living, the introduction of legislation by supermarkets in October could not come at a worse time. Ultimately supermarkets will become less accessible and affordable for those living in food poverty. 

Sofia Antona is a nutritionist and food blogger @sofiabakes

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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