People walking in front of a supermarket

Childhood obesity

UK product profile

24 February 2020

An assessment of the nutritional quality of approximately 50% of packaged foods and beverages sold in the UK in 2016 and their suitability to be marketed to children

In brief

The UK is facing a health crisis driven in large part by the nation’s poor diet. Those that eat poor diets – high in fat, salt and sugar and/or low in fruit, vegetables and wholegrains – are at risk of developing a wide range of serious illnesses as well as dying early. This is why concerted effort is urgently needed to transform the country’s food system so that everyone, including those on low incomes, is able to eat a healthy diet.

 

Executive summary

Poor diets accounted for 17% of all deaths in the UK in 2017. They also accounted for a huge proportion of ill health. Cutting the high and climbing levels of overweight and obesity in the UK is a public health priority, given that the UK already has the highest level of adult obesity in Europe. 61% of adults were overweight or obese in England in 2016; these figures are slightly higher in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

However, up to 40% of those with a normal body-mass index (BMI) have metabolic abnormalities typically associated with obesity, illustrating the importance of improving diets for everyone. Childhood obesity is also accorded a high priority because it is a ticking time-bomb: children who are obese are five times more likely to be obese adults. Currently, a third of children and young people in the UK are estimated to be overweight or obese and these levels are predicted to increase. The related annual costs by 2050 are expected to be £9.7 billion for the NHS and nearly £50 billion for society as a whole. The economic case for action therefore seems to be irrefutable.

Food companies can and must play an active part by improving the nutritional quality of the products they sell and by putting much greater emphasis on increasing the consumption of healthy foods and beverages. In fact, those that do not are at risk losing out to competitors that respond more positively and quickly to the emerging consumer trend of healthy eating.

 

Key findings from the report

3000

this report looked at the healthiness of more than 3000 food and beverage products

69%

of the products analysed using the Healthy Star Rating system failed to meet the healthy standard

85%

of the products were unsuitable to market to children based on analysis using the WHO Euro nutrient profile model

We recommend that food and beverage manufacturers:

  • Reformulate their products to improve their nutritional quality, i.e. make them healthier
  • Improve the category and product mix, so that consumers have more healthy options
  • Adopt a stringent nutrient profiling system similar to the HSR system
  • Stop marketing products that are not healthy to children
  • Increase the proportion of marketing dedicated to healthier products
  • Take a structured approach to addressing nutrition, by adopting SMART targets for key nutrients
  • Improve their accountability through better annual reporting

We recommend that institutional investors:

  • Carefully assess the risks and opportunities related to nutrition facing this sector
  • Factor nutrition issues into their valuation models for food and beverage manufacturers, and into stock selection
  • Engage actively with food and beverage manufacturers to press them to urgently improve the nutritional quality of their products.

We recommend that UK policymakers:

  • Adopt policy measures that create a food policy environment which drives improvement in the overall nutritional quality of packaged foods and beverages in the UK market
  • Consider what can be done to ensure that healthier products are widely accessible and affordable to all

In collaboration with

Access to Nutrition Initiative Index logo ShareAction logo The George Institute for Global Health logo