We are calling for further investigation into confusing and misleading marketing of foods labelled as ‘healthy’. This comes following an investigation by BBC Radio 5 Live Investigates, who discovered that three of the top five supermarkets have healthy eating sections which stock products that are unhealthy, scoring red on the traffic light system.

Many of these products are vegetarian, vegan, or free from certain ingredients, but are highly processed, with high levels of fat, salt, or sugar. 

The EU register of Nutrition and Health Claims defines set values required for a product to be allowed to list health or nutrition statements. There is no definition for ‘healthy’, so currently supermarkets can market products under this term as they wish.

There is a risk that promoting products under this ‘Health Halo’ could cause consumers to make purchasing decisions based on misrepresentative information. Trading Standards Officers have the power to inspect and enforce EU law, yet the evidence suggests the lack of a definition of what is ‘healthy’ allows supermarkets to use this to their advantage.

RSPH is looking at this issue proactively, and is calling for:

  • A move away from using the term ‘healthy’ for food marketing;
  • Supermarkets to promote the EatWell guide to inform purchasing decisions;
  • A review of how supermarkets are regulated.

Duncan Stephenson, Director of External Affairs and Marketing, Royal Society for Public Health, said: “We are aware that consumers don’t spend much time making decisions when buying food, so labelling and packaging must be easy to understand. Good progress has been made on food labelling by retailers and manufacturers, such as the introduction of traffic light labelling, but this is at risk of being undermined by supermarket layout strategies and marketing ploys.

The big four supermarkets have a huge amount of heft in society, and they should be incentivised to present clear and accurate information; and if that fails, further regulation should be considered. Brexit may present an opportunity to work with the industry to reform food labels and set a standard for how we can encourage customers to understand and feel able to make well informed decisions.”