Young London campaigner calls time on global food companies generating two-thirds of sales from ‘unhealthy’ products

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A young campaigner from London hoping to ‘flip the script’ on the UK’s food system has named and shamed some of the top food companies operating in the UK whose product ranges are dominated by food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS). Ferrero and Mondelez have the unhealthiest portfolio with an estimated 100% and 98% of their sales coming from unhealthy products such as Kinder Surprise and Freddo bars.

New research, released by charity Bite Back and carried out by the University of Oxford, reveals that 7 in 10 of the top global food giants make at least two thirds (68%) of their packaged food and drink sales in the UK from unhealthy products. Bite Back’s #FuelUsDontFoolUs campaign is being launched at a time when nearly one in three children are at risk of a future of food-related illness.[Health Survey for England 2019. 30% of 2-15 year olds have overweight or obesity putting them at increased risk of ill health in the future.]

Entitled Fuel Us, Don’t Fool Us: Are food giants rigging the system against child health?, the Oxford University study for Bite Back– a youth activist movement co-founded by chef Jamie Oliver– analysed 241 packaged food and drink brands and over 5,000 products and concluded that the business models of some of the biggest, most successful global food companies operating in the UK are reliant on selling food and drinks that harm children’s health.

Food manufacturers in the UK spent £55 million in 2022 on online adverts for food and drink products from four food categories that are associated with children’s excess sugar and calorie intake: chocolate (£40,948,000), crisps (£9,300,538), biscuits (£2,869,605) and ice cream (£1,971,071). Bite Back’s research reveals that 7 of the top 10 food businesses were behind £50 million (91%) of this ad spend.

Bite Back campaigner Alice, aged 18, from London, said: “A few years ago I did a lot of competitive sport and nutrition was so important. My friends and I used to eat protein bars thinking they were healthy – we even had a spreadsheet which ranked them in term of how much protein they had in them. Then one day, we happened to look at the other ingredients – that is barely legible on the back of the packaging – and realised that nearly all of them were incredibly high in sugar and fat. I felt betrayed, I been completely fooled into thinking I was eating something that was good for me.”

“My younger sister is only eleven and she loves anything that has her favourite characters on. She doesn’t even like the chocolate or the yogurts but immediately obsesses over them because of the packaging and all her friends are the same. These companies are clever, they weaponize our favourite cartoon characters or sports stars to manipulate us into wanting something that is unhealthy. And they are relentless. Even when my sister is playing a game on her iPad, adverts will pop up for a food delivery company. It’s everywhere and its inescapable.”

“These junk food giants and their sinister marketing tactics hide in plain sight. Once you start noticing the flood of junk food we are up against, it’s terrifying. It’s everywhere – on buses, on our high streets, outside school. It’s become part of teenage culture too. When you are at home scrolling through your socials, the adverts for junk food don’t look any different to the rest of your feed, so you don’t even realise that you are being targeted. You’ll see content produced by your favourite influencers and it’s only if you really look that you’ll see it’s an ad. Why aren’t they using their immense marketing power for good, and promoting healthy foods?”

“Why is there such a bias towards unhealthy options? I can’t remember the last time that I saw an ad for something that was healthy – why is it so rare? Since I joined Bite Back I’m so much more aware of how I’m constantly targeted with unhealthy products. Today, we are saying enough is enough. Nearly one in three children are at risk of diet-related illness as they get older, we need companies to stop sacrificing our health for their profits. It shouldn’t be this hard to be healthy. We need food businesses and the Government to take action.”

Sir Patrick Vallance, the UK government’s former chief scientific adviser is supporting young Bite Back activists in their calls for change and said: “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 their interests at the heart of political and business decision-making.

“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,” he explained.

Bite Back have written to the top 10 global food manufacturing companies, calling on them 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. Currently, packaging is excluded from existing UK regulations designed to protect children from junk food marketing.

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

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

Researchers at the University of Oxford say the report’s findings call for an urgent redress of the UK’s food system.

“These findings are consistent with other research that has shown the reliance that leading food and drink companies have on sales of unhealthy products,” said 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,” she added.

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