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Are supermarkets responsible for public health?

If supermarkets don't shoulder some of the responsiblity for the public health crisis, it'll only get worse. But would they risk the financial impact?

When it comes to the health of nations, the food industry including supermarkets, get off lightly. The ‘blame’ – and I don’t think that is too strong a word – is very often laid firmly at the feet of the consumer, with little in the way of discussion around the ethics of lower-priced foods being more unhealthy versus their healthier equivalents.

The relationship between poor health – many conditions of which are related to obesity – and socio-economic status is well documented.1 Yet, little is visibly being done to bridge the gap.

The impact of obesity on public health and healthcare systems across the globe is significant – it is responsible for an estimated 30,000 deaths each in the UK.2 Between 2014 and 2015, ill-health relating to being overweight or obese cost the NHS £6.1bn.2  To put this into perspective, in 2015, smoking and related diseases cost the NHS £2.6bn.3

For decades, tobacco and drinks companies have come under fire for the impact that their products have had on society, and have to comply with numerous restrictions around availability and marketing. Is it time we considered similar moves for supermarkets and the food industry?

There can be no denying that there will always be a segment (in every demographic) that will justify spending money on junk food, cigarettes and alcohol, while in the same breath declaring that they can’t afford a healthy lifestyle – these are not the people that we need to (or can) reach.

Supermarkets are perfectly placed to be able to help consumers have a better understanding of food, its calorie in-take and the impact on their health. Supermarkets have realised the need for convenience and have capitalised on it, but what if the importance of convenience was placed on special diets too? Imagine a supermarket with different aisles containing foods for different diets; an aisle for people on low sugar diets, low salt diets, even weight loss plans. We already have the ‘free from’ aisles but with the online shopping capabilities now available, there is an infinite amount of shelf space, making it even easier to filter shopping results to those appropriate for individual needs.

Diet education starts at a young age; children are taught about the different food groups, suitable portion sizes and building plates with a variety of nutritious elements, but what if that diet education went further? Could we teach children about the amount of salt, sugar or fat in different foods, the occasions when it may be necessary to cut back on certain food groups? By introducing children to the idea of adapting diets to suit different requirements, it could make it a lot easier to implement in the future.

One of the big worries for people on special diets is being left out of social occasions. They fear that their dietary requirements can get in the way of being invited to things. By increasing the education and convenience around catering for special diets, we can help to alleviate the issue of social isolation around special diets.

So, should supermarkets be doing more to help people with dietary requirements? For years, supermarkets have had a bad reputation; upselling sweets and chocolates by the tills, and selling high calorie foods cheaply. Could this be their chance to redeem those wrong-doings and start making a real impact on public health?

1. Newton S, Braithwaite D, Akinyemiju TF. Socio-economic status over the life course and obesity:Systematic review and meta-analysis. PLoS One 2017;12(5). [Accessed December 18, 2019

18th December 2019



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