National Social Marketing Centre

No such thing as unhealthy products?

Aiden Truss, Tuesday, February 15, 2011 - 12:08

This morning, a Google Alert flagged up a story on a statement given by Sainsbury's boss, Justin King, to the parliamentary inquiry into behaviour change: "Our starting proposition is that there is no such thing as unhealthy products; there are unhealthy diets."

This struck me as interesting as in a previous life I worked for a corporate communications company who used to look after a major confectionery and food producer. Amongst the many mantras employed to deflect awkward questions about the content of their products was a slight variation on this theme; 'There's no such thing as bad food, only bad diet.' This incidentally was a line peddled by the same company that lobbied to restrict the traffic light scheme for foods, based on the fact that most of their products would have been showing red.

This company are also responsible for many of the 'good news about chocolate' stories that appear regularly in the media. These are along the lines that polyphenols are good for you, chocolate contains polyphenols, ergo chocolate is good for you. It's unscientific spin, given a veneer of sciencey credibility. It does have the unfortunate side effect of light-heartedly legitimating people's bad behaviour around food. I've lost count of the amount of times I've heard people jokingly claim that chocolate now counts as one of their 'five-a-day'.

This is just an illustration of the thinking permeating many of the big food producers and grocers. And on one level this is fine, it is their job after all to sell products and to provide goods. But now that many of these companies are being roped in to help shape public health policy, it's good to be aware that there are other forces at work that complicate the messages we are given around food and diet. The leaders of the food industry giving evidence to the parliamentary committee won't have been given impartial advice by company nutritionists before their sessions. They would have been briefed by PR specialists and crisis management consultants. With this in mind, one has to ask what real contribution are they making?

Companies like Sainsbury's could take a lead in helping people to make really informed choices about their food. Where in the past, the industry has shied away from such things, preferring instead to push the notion of 'choice', it has now been invited to step up and deliver something other than financial profit.

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