UK government promoting ultra-processed junk foods to families via healthy-eating app, says Soil Association
A government healthy eating tool for families and children is promoting ultra-processed foods despite their links to cancer, heart disease and early death, the Soil Association claims.
An investigation by the organic farming and certification body has revealed that the NHS Food Scanner App recommends biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate puddings and fizzy pop as “good” options for a healthy diet. Energy drinks and instant noodles are also endorsed by the app.
The app – which has been downloaded at least half a million times – was launched as part of the UK government’s Better Health campaign. It aims to help families “take control” of snacking and awards a “Good Choice” thumbs up if products fall below its threshold of salt, sugar, or saturated fat.
But the Soil Association investigation tested the app on popular snack products and found that 80% of a sample of products with the “Good Choice” badge or similar endorsements were ultra-processed.
These products are linked to heart, kidney and liver disease, cancer, depression and premature death, the Soil Association said. With these potentially life-shortening foods making up more than half of UK diets, and children particularly at risk, the organisation has launched a petition urging the government to stop promoting them.
Soil Association campaign coordinator Cathy Cliff said: “We are shocked to see the government not only ignoring the health risks around ultra-processed foods but actively encouraging families to consume them. It seems like the government is more concerned about corporate profits than children’s health.
“When every penny counts, it is near criminal that families are being misled to waste money on junk food that doesn’t fill you up with anything other than health risks.
“The government’s dietary advice is severely out of date and its failure to provide good advice is putting us all at risk. It is wrong that fizzy drinks and crisps are being promoted to children.
“The government is taking the biscuit. We are calling for them to cut the crap – stop telling families that ultra-processed is a good choice and show true leadership by helping us all to eat better.
“Other countries like France, Chile, and Brazil are taking action to make it easier for people to eat less of these unhealthy foods – why is the UK dragging its feet?”
The app investigation followed a Soil Association review of more than 100 recent scientific research papers. They revealed the damaging effect that the industrial additives and processing techniques typical of ultra-processed foods have on the gut microbiome and our overall health. This means these foods carry health risks even when relatively low in salt, sugar, and fat – something the government’s dietary advice fails to take account of.
With the help of parents and carers who trialled the NHS Food Scanner app in their local supermarket or on a home delivery, Soil Association food experts analysed around 100 products with the “Good Choice” badge and other endorsements such as “High-Five, go go green!” and “Healthier Choice”.
These products fell into categories of food or drink often given to children, including savoury snacks, sweet snacks, and drinks such as squash or fizzy drinks. The investigation focused on these as the app is designed to help families scan their “favourite foods” and find “healthier swaps”, encouraging control around children’s snacking.
From these products, Soil Association experts identified 10 popular ultra-processed food and drink products as key examples of what is being recommended by the app.
Cliff added: “Many of the products given a thumbs up or high five by the NHS Food Scanner App are unhealthy, ultra-processed food and drink sold by some of the most popular British brands. The government’s Better Health campaign has been linked to commercial food businesses from the start, with its initial iteration launching in partnership with Tesco, Asda, Pepsico, Kellogg’s, The Co-operative Group, Spar, Costcutter, and Nisa. With junk food manufacturers endorsed by the Good Choice badge, it is unforgiveable that a public health campaign is at times benefiting food businesses more than families.”
Parent Rachel Childs completed the survey and said: “The NHS app doesn’t account for level of processing and doesn’t suggest switching to nutrient-dense foods – why buy biscuits slightly lower in sugar when I could be encouraged to buy fruit instead? It misses the whole idea of planning a nutritionally balanced diet. Just swapping processed foods for other processed foods misses concepts such as the need for dietary diversity and reducing snacking.”
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