Are food and retail brands the saviours of our nation’s health?

Never before has there been such an opportunity for brands to lead the way in helping consumers lead healthier lives.

For years the Government has tasked itself with trying to change peoples’ behaviour for the better in the wake of what has been labelled a growing obesity epidemic, but its well known Change4Life campaign is sure to see a scale down thanks to the long-awaited budget cuts.

It’s yet another element of Government activity that it is looking to move more and more into the hands of corporations. While I have yet to be sold on Prime Minister David Cameron’s Big Society idea, I agree with Kantar’s Giles Quick in this week’s trends feature that brands in the food and retail sector are best placed to help push people towards making healthier eating choices.

In a similar vein to issues surrounding sustainability and corporate responsibility, the brands that have led the way on health are not only demonstrating leadership and innovation but are attracting approval from the public and industry commentators. Chocolate maker Mars has already announced that its key chocolate lines will have 15% less saturated fat from this month, while breakfast cereal Coco Pops (which faced a backlash for advertising near schools earlier this year) has committed to reducing its sugar levels by 15% by mid-2011.

On the retailer end of things, you would be hard pressed to find a supermarket chain that doesn’t stock a healthy eating range. Asda has launched a range in conjunction with popular kids TV franchise Lazy Town, while M&S features communications in its stores to tell customers how its ready meals are now lower in fat and salt.

But for all these efforts, it is concerning to read in this week’s trends piece that despite such prompts, the likelihood of eating healthy seems to be governed by class; with less affluent demographics still over consuming saturated fat, sugar, and salt.

Two main factors are at play here – price and education. As Quick himself says in the feature, there is still a perception that eating healthy is expensive. Coupled with the fact that certain demographics are caught in the clutches of a vicious cycle of takeaway eating, this would indicate that there is a sector of society that is in most need of education and encouragement. You only need to watch an episode of Supersize vs Superskinny to see the Supersize contender relate their eating problems to a childhood of overfeeding by parents.

I read in the same feature that Claire Hughes from M&S claims that “behavioural change is not only down to the retailer but everyone working together”; a kind of reflection of the old adage that you can lead a horse to water…etcetera. While on the one hand I agree, but as the point of purchase, and with the weight of trusted brands behind them, retailers are the most obvious avenue for dietary reform amongst the masses. Will they rise to the challenge?


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