We are living through the worst public health crisis in a generation, the likes of which most of us in the UK will not have experienced before. The coronavirus pandemic is having an impact on all aspects of our lives, not least the food and drinks we are eating.
What is the impact on food consumption?
We recently commissioned polling from Savanta ComRes (1) to understand if and how food consumption had changed for people in the UK during April – when the public health advice for the majority of the population was to stay at home, with only essential trips out. The survey highlighted several changes to eating habits. Some of these were positive, with 40% of people saying they were eating more fruit and vegetables and 50% of people reporting eating food cooked from scratch more often.
However, there has also been a rise in consumption of foods that tends to be high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), such as confectionery, cakes and biscuits and savoury snacks. This is particularly true among younger people, aged 18-24. These categories of food all sit outside of Public Health England’s ‘EatWell Guide’, meaning they do not contribute to our health and should be eaten infrequently.
Importance of food for health
Our resilience to infectious disease such as coronavirus, is linked to our physical health. There are emerging signs that some people with underlying health conditions, which can be driven by poor diet, could be more susceptible to complications from coronavirus. There is also increasing evidence that people with a BMI in the obese category may be at a higher risk from complications.
Therefore it’s more important than ever that the food we eat helps us to be healthy.
How can supermarkets help?
Supermarkets and their workers are doing a fantastic job of suppyling food to local communities during these challenging times, putting the needs of consumers over profits. Their response to issues with food supply lines in the early days of the pandemic, such as removing multi-buy promotions to avoid stockpiling and focusing deliveries on the most vulnerable, show they are able to be agile and respond their businesses practices to a changing environment.
Supermarkets also play a role in influencing the foods we eat. When foods are placed in prominent locations such as shop entrances, aisle ends and in front of checkouts, higher volumes are bought. Multi-buy promotions (such as buy-one-get-one-free and buy 3 for the price of 2) increase the amount we buy, and do not lead to money saving in the long-term.
In recognition of the impact of promotion in steering food purchases, in 2018 the Government committed to introducing limits on how HFSS food and drinks could be promoted in supermarkets and held a subsequent consultation. While regulation is understandably on hold for now, supermarkets could show their commitment to protecting the nation’s health by re-balancing their promotions to focus on foods that help us be healthy, rather than HFSS products which contribute little to our health.
Our polling shows this would be welcomed by the public, with 62% of people agreeing that supermarkets have a particularly key role to play in encouraging healthy eating in the population (with this figure rising to 71% in the 55-64 age group). Half of people agree that supermarkets should only put promotions such as buy-one-get-one-free on products that help us be healthy at the moment.
The Obesity Health Alliance is calling on supermarkets and other food retailers to do the following:
- Ensure only food and drink that is lower in fat, sugar and salt is promoted in key locations (such as entrances, aisle ends and checkouts) and is subject to multi-buy promotions.
- Use promotions to drive people towards foods that encourage us to be healthy, including fruit and vegetables of all types.
Small changes can make big differences, and this action by supermarkets could help make a big difference in supporting us to be healthy, and in the longer term give the nation the best fighting chance against all types of infectious and non-communicable diseases. As one large retailer famously says, every little helps.
- Savanta ComRes interviewed 2,025 UK adults (18+) online from the 17th April to 20th April 2020. Data were weighted to be demographically representative of English adults by gender, age, region and social grade.