Research reveals big food companies rely on profiting from children’s health

22 February 2024
Seven out of 10 of the biggest food and drink manufacturers are reliant on selling unhealthy products in the UK, according to a new report from Bite Back.

Researchers at Oxford University reviewed the sales of the largest global food businesses operating in the UK to assess the percentage of their sales and profits from unhealthy food and drinks. The top ten businesses – Nestle, Kelloggs, Mars, Coca-Cola, Unilever Group, Danone, Ferrero, Kraft Heinz, Mondelez, and PepsiCo – are reliant on profits from unhealthy food and drinks. Over two-thirds of profits from seven of these ten businesses came from unhealthy packaged food and drinks in 2022.  

Ferrero, housing brands like Ferrero Rocher and Nutella Chocolate Spread, had the largest proportion of unhealthy sales at 100%, and Mondelez, housing popular brands like Dairy Milk and Cadbury Chocolate, had the second largest proportion of unhealthy sales at 98%. These brands are dominating advertising spaces and using child-appealing tactics to market the unhealthy foods. The report stresses:  

The top five categories of food and drink products by sales value are chocolate, savoury snacks, reduced sugar soft drinks, regular soft drinks and ice cream - none of which are reflected in the [NHS] Eatwell Guide as food groups that should make up a healthy and sustainable way of eating.  

The importance of creating a healthy food environment is paramount to children’s growth and development, yet a child’s ability to access healthy food is highly dependent on factors outside of their control. This report highlight’s the reality that current food environments in the UK are flooded with unhealthy, ultra-processed food and drink options developed by multinational food businesses who target children through predatory marketing tactics.  

The Nuffield Trust recently published a report indicating that UK childhood obesity and overweight has reached an all-time high. The impacts of the consumption of ultra-processed foods put children at risk of obesity and overweight, which can lead to serious health complications like diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and some cancers. We believe that children deserve better. A child’s food environment should make eating healthy the easy choice, not the hard choice. 

Bite Back recommends that food businesses take a few key actions:  

  1. Set and report on a healthier sales target as a proportion of total volume sales and based on the 2004/2005 Nutrient Profiling Model. 
  2. Address unhealthy marketing by phasing out advertising of products high in fat, sugar or salt and introducing clear and transparent labelling (including colour-coded front-of-pack labelling and removing health and nutrition claims or cartoon and brand equity characters on unhealthy products). 
  3. By 2024, set a 1.5°C aligned target verified by SBTi for all greenhouse gases and including scope 3 emissions, cutting emissions by 50% by 2030 and reaching net zero no later than 2050.  

They also recommend government act to introduce regulatory approaches that will level the playing field for business, incentivise change, and take responsibility for their impact on human and planetary health. Specifically, the Government must:  

  1. Fully implement legislation restricting the marketing of food and drinks high in fat, sugar or salt on TV, online and in retail environments and extend to other types of marketing including outdoor, brand advertising and sports sponsorships.  
  2. Bring in mandatory colour-coded front-of-pack labelling and stop the use of cartoon characters and other child-appealing tactics along with health and nutrition claims on the packaging for unhealthy food and drinks.  
  3. Mandate businesses to report publicly and consistently on sales of unhealthy food and drinks and sustainability metrics on a yearly basis.  
  4. Explore measures to incentivise healthier food and drink production beyond the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, including use of further financial levers. 

We support these recommendations and encourage everyone to get behind them by signing Bite Back’s petition and sharing their campaign.  

As an organisation committed to creating healthy food environments for children, we also encourage schools to take part in our Healthy Zones programmes. We support schools in their development and implementation of food policy, creation of healthier breakfast and afterschool club menus, and education efforts for parents and school staff on healthy eating practices. Together, we can develop a food environment where children can thrive.  

Read the Bite Back report here.