The Government is pushing forward with its commitment to ban “junk food” ads – one measure within its obesity strategy which will impose strict regulations on how brands can promote “unhealthy food items”.
The move has been roundly criticised by the food industry, which is to be expected. One in three children are overweight or obese by the time they are leave primary school, this becomes one in two by the time young adults reach 24.
Currently young people are up against a flood of unhealthy food options, from their high street, supermarket shelves, school canteen. And there are not many healthy lunches you can buy for under £2.50. There are merits behind the motivation of the policy. We do need to change the food environment.
For too long we’ve blamed teachers, parents and young people themselves for how the food industry is set up. But implementing policies which put ministers at odds with the businesses who control the food environment is a potentially fatal flaw.
With every new set of regulations, businesses spend more time trying to understand them and work around them than trying to create and market healthier products that people want to buy and can afford on a mass scale, in order to drive demand-led behaviour change.
Very few restaurants even hold the necessary data for them to advertise anything at all (including healthy food) under the new guidelines.
These measures could easily act as a disincentive to brands who are trying to nudge consumers to healthier options. If the “healthier” options still fail to meet the standards for promotion, then why bother making them at all?
The narrative needs a 180 degree shift from “ban the bad” and begin to “promote the good”. People buy unhealthy food not just because of advertising but because it is available and it’s cheap. The obesity divide often falls down socioeconomic lines.
We know the most powerful force shaping industry trends is consumer demand. The groundswell support for climate action in retail has caused even the giants of fast fashion to develop sustainable lines.
We need to use the carrot and the stick to incentivise food brands to make products healthier and put marketing spend behind them, so that they are commercially viable for business.
Once we understand the barriers to brands developing and promoting healthier items, and the key drivers of the consumers buying them (taste, convenience, price) we can accelerate this shift – for example by reworking the VAT system (away from hot and cold food towards those which are better-for-you), and encouraging brands to spend more on promoting nutritious food.
We need to prove the elasticity of healthier food to show that promotions can drive volume – making it commercially appealing and sustainable for brands. To do this, we need to use data and insights to prove that healthier food sells and identify what incentives motivate behaviour. This has to be more effective than simply limiting the platforms and channels they can use to do so.
Gen Z want healthier, affordable and great tasting food, and demand will go up when they have genuine access to it.
Only then can we show that healthier food is better business and start to change the food environment. Only then will we start to see the radical shift needed to improve the health of young people.