Can we trust supermarkets to give us health advice?


Waitrose has always been known for its luxurious in-store experience (and accompanying high prices), but a recent announcement takes it even further. The supermarket is going to introduce ‘healthy eating specialists’ to shop floors. In a pioneering move, these specialists will be on hand to advise customers on shopping healthily, offering guidance on how to pick foods that contain less fat or sugar, and vegetarian alternatives. If this scheme proves popular, it’s only a matter of time before other supermarkets follow suit. However, since supermarkets have a checkered history when it comes to protecting our health, can we truly trust them to give us health advice?

Supermarket practices suggest a lack of concern for our health

Though most of their advertising campaigns appear to depict customers living healthy lifestyles, most supermarket packaging makes it difficult to tell which foods are truly healthy and which are not. For instance, breakfast cereals labelled ‘high fibre’ will certainly help increase a customer’s fibre intake. But the worrying levels of salt and sugar they contain could negate any health benefits. Customers could also be tempted by food with ‘low fat’ or ‘light’ labels on them, but these are also often loaded with unhealthy ingredients. Although much of the blame lies with food manufacturers, supermarkets’ own-brand products are just as guilty of using misleading labels. For example, in 2016 The Telegraph found that a Waitrose ‘low fat’ black cherry yoghurt contained 4.6 teaspoons of sugar – equivalent to over half of your daily sugar allowance.
As well as misleading us about the health benefits of the food they sell, there is evidence that supermarkets are guilty of promoting unhealthy food products over healthier alternatives. Research by consumer specialists Which? looked at promotions from the major supermarkets in the UK (Asda, Morrisons, Ocado, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose) and found that special offers on unhealthy food varied between 52-55%. This is compared to only around a third on fresh fruit and vegetables.

Health-conscious consumers are turning to independent retailers

With the above issues blemishing the supermarkets’ reputations, more and more consumers are taking advantage of the diverse alternatives available to them outside of the supermarket. Data released in 2016 showed that consumers were increasingly abandoning mass-market brands, with the figures revealing that their return on capital fell to 12.4%, the lowest level in 30 years. Independent food producers are now becoming more popular and clawing back some of the supermarket supremacy.

For example, British food company Huel has seen stunning success in recent years, with the brand making over £14m annually. Huel’s main product is a nutritionally complete powder that provides customers with all the nutrients they need from a meal, and the selection has recently expanded to include snack bars and granola. Unlike many supermarket foods, Huel products have completely transparent ingredients lists with no misleading labels. Huel is also popular for enabling consumers to conveniently eat when they are on the go. As community manager Tim Urch recently told Wired: “It’s not about replacing your lovely meals with your family. It’s when you end up spending eight quid on a Pret panini and coffee purely out of necessity.” Instead of being found in supermarkets, consumers purchase Huel products online, before having them posted to their doorstep. The convenience, health benefits, and clear nutritional value has caused the popularity of Huel to grow and grow.

The story is similar for Rafi’s Spicebox, an independent retailer that specialises in homemade Indian food. The spice shop has transformed from a small store in Sudbury to a national brand, and won OFM Awards: Best Independent Retailer at the 2017 OFM Awards. There are many other independent retailers seeing similar success, such as Infinity Foods in Brighton, who sell organic and natural vegetarian and vegan foods, and The Cornish Food Box Company, who specialise in meats, seafood and veg.

Recent health initiatives suggest supermarkets are bucking up their ideas

Despite some of the issues with how supermarkets go about their business, they do appear to be sincere in their efforts to encourage customers to eat healthily and win back their trust. The Waitrose ‘healthy eating specialists’ initiative should diminish some of the negative effects that stem from the over-promotion of unhealthy goods.

There are other health-conscious initiatives that supermarkets are undertaking, including label all of their vegan brand products more clearly. This initiative was inspired by a recent Animal Aid campaign called #MarkItVegan which was launched to persuade UK supermarkets to add clear vegan labelling to products from their own-brand ranges. This shows that supermarkets are willing to make their labelling clearer in light of criticisms.

Whilst supermarkets have not yet earned our trust, the steps they are taking to introduce healthy initiatives show that they are learning from their mistakes. Maybe one day they will truly be trustworthy. Until then, the growing amount of choice we have as consumers means that we no longer have to rely on supermarkets, so this situation is much less of a worry than before.


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