Children's health and food Good Food Programme

How can innovation support a healthier food industry?

Learnings from the pilot phase of the Good Food Programme and ambitions for the next phase.

Download the executive summary


Everyone deserves access to affordable, nutritious food, no matter where they live. To make this a reality in the UK, we must transform the way we produce, market, and sell food so that our food system supports health.

The places where many children and families – especially those on lower incomes – live, work and play are currently flooded with junk food. Soaring inflation and cost of living pressures have put healthier options out of reach for many. Healthier food now costs three times as much per calorie as unhealthy food, exacerbating dietary and health inequalities. The food industry, policy makers and investors all have a major role to play in tackling this inequity, and the scale and urgency of the changes needed will require collaboration across all parties. 

Against this complex backdrop, healthier challenger brands (HCBs) are emerging as a promising force for change. HCBs are food and drink companies that innovate to create healthier products. They are poised to disrupt the food industry by demonstrating that it is possible to produce healthier, tasty, and affordable food. The best known examples are start-ups looking to displace household-name food brands with healthier options.

As mission-driven businesses characterised by their agility and willingness to defy convention, HCBs are able to quickly innovate to launch solutions that meet increasing consumer demand for healthier products.  

However, these emerging brands require more support to scale and increase their impact. This is why Mission Ventures and Impact on Urban Health formed a unique, cross-sector partnership to establish The Good Food Programme. The programme helps healthier challenger brands and novel food technologies to break through and scale, with the aim of displacing well-established, unhealthier products in families’ shopping baskets.

This report sets out learnings from the pilot phase of The Good Food Programme, and our ambitions for the next phase. 

We also showcase stories and calls to action from HCBs and established companies across the food industry, as well as from investors, young people and policymakers. We demonstrate how innovation throughout the food industry can improve access to healthier food for everyone, no matter their budget.

How can healthier challenger brands support the movement for a healthier food system?

This disruptive group of businesses support the movement for a healthier food system in a variety of ways:

  • HCBs provide the healthier, affordable, and tasty options that consumers want. UK Government data from 2021 found that cost was the most commonly reported barrier to accessing healthy food.
  • HCBs can help retailers diversify their product offerings and, in turn, help them to meet their voluntary targets to increase the share of sales from healthier food and drink.

  • Through investment and partnerships, agile HCBs can support established manufacturers to tackle innovation challenges such as accessing new technologies, consumer insight and alternate routes to market when developing new, healthier product ranges.

  • HCBs also present a compelling investment opportunity. Within the 12 month period of the programme, the 13 brands raised £6.5m. Urban Legend went on to raise a total of £10m within 18 months.

Exploring how healthier challenger brands can tackle health inequality

At Impact on Urban Health, we aim to break the persistent link between living on a lower income and experiencing health and dietary inequalities.We invest in projects that make eating well the easiest – not the hardest – thing to do, and in 2019 we began exploring the role innovation and start-ups could play towards this mission.

We commissioned the Healthier Returns research jointly with Big Society Capital and the Food Foundation, which demonstrated:

  • The availability, attractiveness, and accessibility of food in the areas where we live, work, and play have a significant impact on how we eat. 
  • Innovators and disruptors, in the form of HCBs, were starting to take on the challenge of making healthier food more widely accessible, and this was especially prevalent in food snacking categories.
  • While HCBs were an exciting new force in the food industry, in order to scale and reach more families, they required investment and advisory support to navigate the food industry and set up a successful food business.

Building on these findings, Impact on Urban Health and Big Society Capital established a pilot programme that supported 13 HCBs to enter the market and grow, with a business support programme managed by food industry experts Mission Ventures and an equity fund managed by Ascension Ventures

What we learned

1. It is possible to develop and market healthier products that are affordable to families living on lower incomes.

  • To date, nine of the brands are both compliant with HFSS regulation and achieved affordability (defined as 10% more or less expensive than market-leading products)

You can read more about the restrictions here and here.

  • The total revenue of the brands that went through the accelerator in 2020 increased by 63% within their first 12 months. 
  • BSC and IoUH invested £1.5m into the pilot fund. Co-investors supported the pilot brands due to our expertise on food and impact, seeing the 13 brands raise a further £6.5m of investment within 12 months 
  • Seven brands secured a major supermarket listing within the 12 months of the programme.

2. Both acceleration support and investment are needed to support ventures to scale but they play different roles.

  • Mission Ventures’ industry knowledge and support with consumer insights proved hugely valuable to brands and first time founders.
  • Investment was especially needed in the earlier stages of brands’ growth, as this is when funding is required to refine their offering to consumers and gain distribution channels. Investment at this stage can appear high-risk, but, as we detail in later sections, HCBs can also present a ripe opportunity to forward-thinking investors.

3. Families living on lower incomes may switch to HCBs once they are distributed and match competitors’ pricing and promotions.

  • Jim Jams saw 61% of its sales at a top four UK retailer come through substitutions for its products over less healthy branded or market leading products. 

“For us at Big Society Capital it was really important to test through this pilot how and in what ways social investment could tackle the problem of dietary inequalities. 

We had done our research with Impact on Urban Health, but there were still questions we didn’t have an answer to. The pilot was so important to inform what a larger scale proposition should look like and answered questions like: what kind of financial and non-financial support do these ventures need to scale? And, most importantly: is it possible for healthier, convenient food to be offered at an affordable price point, and, do families living on lower income switch to these products? We have learnt that yes, it is possible to get these products to an accessible price point and there are positive signs of switching behaviour.”

– Hayley Hand, Investment Director, Big Society Capital

The Good Food Programme: refining our approach

Our pilot set out to test whether it was possible to support HCBs to offer healthier, convenient, and tasty products to all families, no matter their budget. We gained promising evidence that this was possible, and we became more familiar with the challenges facing these brands. We now know that:

  • HCBs can’t always address the needs of families on low incomes. These brands compete on cost, need to reach significant distribution to be able to bring their price point down. 
  • HCBs, like many mission-driven startups, are small, scrappy ventures nipping at the heels of billion dollar companies with vast marketing budgets. They need to raise consumer awareness of their products and their value, but can’t do this alone.
  • HCBs start out with a desire to make healthier food but often lack an in-depth understanding of what consumers, especially those living on a budget, value most.
  • People who have experience of an issue are best positioned to design solutions for it, however many HCB founders don’t have lived experience of living on a lower income and the impact this has on access to healthier food.

Our pilot programme learned how to effectively address these barriers, and we built the next iteration of the programme to respond in an intentional and structured way.

How the Good Food Programme supports HCBs to thrive

The next phase of the Good Food Programme launched in August 2022. To address the challenges outlined above, the programme further builds on Mission Ventures’ in-depth understanding of the food industry, and galvanises action from across the food industry and from policymakers. 

The main challenge the Good Food Programme tackles is bringing healthier products to an accessible price point, which typically requires brands to reach mass distribution to reduce prices. The Good Food Programme aims to shortcut this process by supporting brands to design their products with a clear pathway to affordability and scalability that always keeps health in mind. The updated programme sees Mission Ventures leverage its extensive industry knowledge and networks to work closely with 10 HCBs over two years through a longer, more tailored, targeted business support programme. 

Mission Ventures brings consumer insights into the process early on so that brands can gain clarity on what value their products offer consumers. Consumer insight panels, which the brands in pilot noted as hugely important to their journey, convene a diverse range of voices, in particular families living on lower incomes. The brands develop products that appeal to all consumers, not just wealthier households, which is atypical for HCBs. 

The new iteration of the programme also offers a £15,000 grant. In January 2022, we conducted research with the founders of 50 FMCG businesses under five years old. 70% of participants told us that they spent between £0 – £20,000 to start their business, and more than 70% either self-funded or raised this from friends and family. We have included the grant funding to kick-start innovation and attract entrepreneurs who might not have access to early-stage funding from their networks.

We also measure and evaluate our impact by working with the Behavioural Insights Team. They support us from recruitment – by developing a health impact assessment of each potential brand – and will work with us throughout the full programme to track brand sales and growth  and if consumers are actually switching to the Good Food Programme products. 

Most importantly, the next phase of the programme goes beyond acceleration support and seeks to use our unique insights to mobilise action across the food industry and with policymakers to collaborate with us. We want to raise the public profile of healthier challenger brands, demonstrate the role innovation can play, and develop partnerships that support coordinated action towards improving health.

How we use data to inform our approach

To achieve these goals, we take a targeted and data-driven approach evaluating potential impact and progress. We analyse the data to identify categories that represent potential value to retailers and investors but lack affordable and healthier options.  Research we conducted with Kantar ahead of our recruitment drive in summer 2022 identified categories where families on lower incomes spent as much or more than wealthier households:

Download the full clean data (.xslx file)

  • Mission Ventures overlays its deep insight into the food industry, existing innovation, trends and consumer behaviour to inform its analysis of this data and evaluate potential for scaling new ventures within each category.
  • These categories hold approximately £4.3 billion in grocery sales, with £2.2 billion coming from families living on a budget. Crucially, these are categories where families living on a budget are spending more than wealthier counterparts and
    • a) there are few to no healthier and/or affordable products and
    • b) these have yet to see much innovation or new product development.
  • We apply this analysis to recruitment and tailoring of the business support. We have supported the growth of a healthier sugar confectionery, a healthier children’s biscuit, and have recently recruited brands creating products in the ‘Flavoured Milk’ and ‘Instant Hot Snacks’ categories. 
  • We apply our industry knowledge and insight to categories, such as Frozen Pizza. This is a £560 million category with a huge gulf between healthier options and affordable ones. Despite families on lower incomes having a slightly lower share of spend, it still presents a compelling opportunity for developing and launching healthier and affordable products. Focus on categories like this would benefit retailers by delivering new growth and for investors as brands look to capitalise on less-crowded market opportunities.

Going forward, we will continue to identify agile brands that can disrupt these categories, offering value to consumers, retailers, and investors and present a blueprint to more established manufacturers on how to bring healthier options to market.

Healthy challenger brands play an important role across all of our activities. One of the reasons we were such a big supporter of the HFSS legislation was that we knew it would bring huge innovation to the market. It has driven so much good thinking. It’s not just been about making tipping-point products healthier, we’ve also seen new brands come to market and a change in how customers think about products in categories like snacks and drinks.

Oonagh Turnbull Head of Health and Sustainable Diet Campaigns at Tesco

The bigger picture - stories from across the food industry

HCBs and innovators play a role in driving a healthier future for food and drink, but they can’t do it alone. There is a strong and consistent message being shared by stakeholders committed to action on health – the need for greater collaboration and the creation of a coordinated approach to improving access to healthier food for all.

For this report, we gathered a range of different perspectives about innovation and transformation in the food industry. Read on to find out more about the work different industry players and policymakers are taking to improve health and reduce dietary inequalities. 

  • Consumers want affordable, tasty, and healthier food options, but these aren’t always easy to find. You’ll hear James share his experience trying to access healthier food, and his demands to policymakers and the food industry on how they can better serve him and his peers
  • Retailers are looking to take action, and Tesco has set a goal to be the go-to retailer for healthier products. Oonagh Turnbull, Head of Health and Sustainable Diet Campaigns, will share more about their strategy for health.
  • Investors like Matt Truman are looking to a healthier future and investing in the brands that will lead this charge. He shares why investifng in healthier brands gives his fund an edge
  • Policymakers like Kate Pugh oversee the UK’s programme to support and fund agri-tech innovation. She explains how greater collaboration with the private sector could see emerging technologies and innovations scale faster – a lesson that can be applied to improving innovation throughout the system, from farms through to supermarket shelves.

  • Manufacturers are a key driver for change. Bettina Abruzzese, Head of Public Affairs – Healthy Nutrition at Danone UK and Ireland describes how Danone’s commitment to health shapes their entire strategy and approach to innovation.

Founders in conversation

We’re also very excited to bring you the short videos below, which bring two founders from the pilot phase in conversation with each other. Rushina Shah, founder of Insane Grain, and Anthony Fletcher, founder of Urban Legends chat to each other about their entrepreneurial journeys, why they focus on health and the support they need to build their businesses.

Choosing to be an entrepreneur

“I was just another person in a corporate. For me, it was about starting a business that actually did good” – Rushina Shah

The Good Food Programme

“Being around the programme and Mission Ventures, and gaining their insights on what works and what doesn’t it really sped up my progress”– Rushina Shah


Improving eating habits

I’ve always found the retailers receptive. They’ve always wanted to sell healthier products but at the same time they’ve got to run a business. I’ve always felt it’s the manufacturers who are best placed to solve this problem. But it often falls to entrepreneurs to come up with the products that sell to consumers” – Anthony Fletcher


The challenges of building a brand

“Our big challenge right now is raising investment and making sure that investors are supporting challenger brands and brands with a real mission” – Rushina Shah


Levelling the playing field

I really believe that HFSS and the legislation is going to unlock a golden decade of innovation in the UK” – Anthony Fletcher

How can we drive the change we need to see?

To quote Matt Truman, we call on the whole food industry – from retailers, to manufacturers, to investors – and on government – to ‘be brave and set robust ambitions and strategies for health’. We need to see the following change: 

  • Collaborate: This report has illustrated the power that HCBs have to drive growth within industry, and we call on retailers and manufacturers to directly partner with us so we can more effectively tackle internal growth challenges and support the development of healthier innovation.
    • Retailers: beyond listing HCBs, can you share data on distribution and growth, so we can better support the scaling journey of our brands?
    • Manufacturers: get in touch to meet our entrepreneurs and learn about how early-stage innovations can support your health strategies and how to better serve consumers living on lower incomes. 
  • Coordinate: We need better coordination within the food system – from farms through to supermarkets – to develop a joint vision for innovation. The government should back a forum for retailers, manufacturers, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and investors to share data and insights and to explore areas for collaboration and co-investment. We’re ready to help convene and chair such a group. 
  • Regulate: Regulation can encourage innovation. We need the government to do away with delays and go full force with HFSS legislation. It should also require food companies to report on the size and proportion of healthy sales and make this information transparent and easily accessible. Progressive companies have already moved forward with these actions in the absence of regulation and are looking to government to level the playing field.
  • Invest: We need to see a significant increase in public and private sector investment into healthier food innovation. We welcome the National Food Strategy’s call for a £500m challenge fund dedicated to driving innovation in food and drink, and as our report shows, targeted investment into early-stage brands can create meaningful impact. Investment in conjunction with regulation would be a powerful force for innovation and transformation in the food system.

To learn more about The Good Food Programme, please get in touch with:

Louis Bedwell, Managing Director at Mission Ventures or Alisha Mulhall, Portfolio Manager, Impact on Urban Health

In partnership with

Mission Ventures logo