Concerns over ultra-processed foods on healthy eating app

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The Government is continuing to point families in the direction of ultra-processed foods via a healthy eating app, leading to thousands signing a petition calling for the advice to be revised, campaigners have said.

The Soil Association said it was “deeply concerned” about the influence of the food and drink industry on UK health policy as the NHS Food Scanner app continued to recommend biscuits, cakes, crisps, chocolate puddings and fizzy pop as “good” options for a healthy diet.

The food and farming charity raised concerns earlier this year that the app – which has been downloaded at least half a million times – lists hundreds of ultra-processed items as a good choice.

It said about 14,000 people had since signed a petition and 2,000 had written to their MP calling for the app to be revised, with the petition to be submitted to Parliament on Thursday.

A study funded by Cancer Research UK and the World Cancer Research Fund earlier this year suggested there may be some link between very processed foods such as ham, crisps, mass-produced bread and breakfast cereal and an increasing risk of various types of cancer.

The Imperial College London team which led the study said the link could not be proven owing to the fact it is based on observations, where people remember what they eat.

However, they said people in the UK eat far too many ultra-processed foods – often called UPFs – and called for front of pack warning labels.

Ultra-processed foods usually contain ingredients that people would not add when they are cooking homemade food.

Soil Association campaign co-ordinator Cathy Cliff said: “We are deeply concerned about the influence of the food and drink industry over UK health policy.

“Ultra-processed foods make up almost two thirds of British children’s diets. And yet the Food Scanner app continues to tell families struggling with the cost-of-living crisis that biscuits, energy drinks and other products with no nutritional value are good choices.

“Other countries are taking action to help citizens reduce consumption of ultra-processed foods and, after two years of campaigning, we’re pleased the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is now reviewing the evidence linking these foods to poor health.

“But we need action and the very least our Government should do is remove their endorsement from these foods.”

In a response to parliamentary questions in March, Health Minister Neil O’Brien defended the app’s criteria for awarding a Good Choice badge.

He wrote: “The Good Choice badge helps people identify healthier options using the NHS Food Scanner app and when shopping in store and online.

“The app helps families to see what is in their food and drinks and suggests healthier alternatives, where these exist, that can help them cut down on sugar, saturated fat and salt.

“The Good Choice badge is underpinned by nutrition criteria that determine which products can display the badge.

“The app and wider Better Health campaign supports families on their journey towards having a healthier diet, as making the step to the healthiest option may be too far for many people in one move.”

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is currently carrying out a scoping review of the evidence on processed foods and health and aims to publish its initial assessment in the summer.

Ms Cliff added: “The UK Government needs to catch up with the science and enact a policy response, as other governments globally are doing, and work to re-balance the national diet.

“With the growing evidence that ultra-processed food over-consumption is linked to cancer, diabetes, heart disease, poor liver health, depression and early death, a Government response is now urgently needed.”

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