An NHS healthy eating app promotes ultra-processed junk food and describes biscuits, cakes and crisps as a ‘good choice’, according to research.
Obesity campaigners last night described the revelation as “shocking” and demanded an urgent review of the NHS food scanner.
The free app, which has been downloaded more than half a million times, regularly recommends users buy ultra-processed products and even endorses instant noodles and an energy drink, the Soil Association found.
Ultra-processed foods are made with ingredients or processes not found in a typical kitchen and have been linked to cancer, heart disease, depression and premature death.
The free app, which has been downloaded more than half a million times, regularly recommends users buy ultra-processed products and even endorses instant noodles and an energy drink, the Soil Association found. She also says McVitie’s Rich Tea Biscuits and Mr Kipling Bakewell Slices are healthy options
Products endorsed or recommended by the app include cookies, cakes, chips, chocolate pudding, soda pop, energy drinks and instant noodles.
HOW SHOULD A BALANCED DIET BE?
Meals should be based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally wholegrain, according to the NHS
• Eat at least five servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables each day. All fresh, frozen, dried and canned fruits and vegetables count
• Meals based on potatoes, bread, rice, pasta or other starchy carbohydrates, ideally whole grains
• Thirty grams of fiber a day. That’s the same as eating all of the following: five servings of fruits and vegetables, two whole-grain crackers, two thick slices of whole-wheat bread, and a large baked potato with the skin on.
• Have some milk or dairy alternatives (such as soy drinks), choosing options with less fat and less sugar
• Eat some beans, legumes, fish, eggs, meat and other proteins (including two portions of fish each week, one of which should be fatty)
• Choose unsaturated and spreadable oils and consume them in small amounts
• Drink six to eight cups/glasses of water a day
• Adults should have less than 6g of salt and 20g of saturated fat for women or 30g for men per day.
Source: NHS Eatwell Guide
British children have the highest levels of ultra-processed food intake in Europe, with under-14s getting two-thirds of their daily energy intake from this source.
The Government has encouraged parents to download the app to their mobile phone so they can make healthier choices when buying food.
Users scan products’ barcodes to see how much fat, sugar and salt they contain, and those below a certain threshold are awarded a “Good Choice” badge.
If a product is deemed to be too fatty, sugary or salty, the app suggests “Smart Swaps” that it considers a healthier alternative.
But the research found that health officials do not take into account the processing of food and drinks before certifying them.
Suggested changes often contain less sugar or fat than the scanned product, but a long list of ingredients you’d never find in your home kitchen, including emulsifiers, additives and artificial sweeteners.
Products endorsed or recommended by the app include cookies, cakes, chips, chocolate puddings, fizzy pop, energy drinks and instant noodles.
Tam Fry, from the National Obesity Forum, said: “It is shocking that an NHS healthy eating app is promoting this food without considering how it is produced.
“Everyone has to eat some fat, sugar and salt, but the real killer is how food is processed. You can’t look at these things in isolation.
“The government should be recommending healthy foods, such as fresh fruit and vegetables, rather than just more junk food with a little less sugar.
“This application needs to be reviewed as it will certainly not improve the nation’s health in its current form.”
A Soil Association report on its research says a “growing body of research” has linked ultra-processed foods to poor health and weight gain.
It highlights studies that show the harmful effect that industrial additives and processing techniques have on the gut microbiome and overall health.
This means these foods carry health risks, even when they are relatively low in fat, sugar and salt, according to the charity.
He criticizes the UK government for not following other nations in adopting legislation or measures aimed at limiting the intake of these foods.
The report added: “Despite the UK being one of the biggest consumers of ultra-processed foods and British children having the highest levels of ultra-processed food intake in Europe, these products have been ignored in the guidelines of the UK government on dietary health.
Worse, recent efforts to help parents and caregivers choose healthy products for their children have encouraged the purchase of ultra-processed foods and beverages.
“We found products that encourage unhealthy snacks, artificially sweetened drinks and even energy drinks awarded the UK government’s Good Choice badge and promoted as healthy swaps by their NHS Food Scanner app.
“Our campaign is calling on the UK Government to stop taking the biscuit, remove its Good Choice badge from these products and support people to eat less ultra-processed food.”
Researchers at the Soil Association asked 17 parents to scan three food and drink products they regularly buy for their children and look for “Smart Swaps”.
The analysis revealed that 104 of these products had received a ‘Good Choice’, ‘High-5 go go green’ or ‘Healthier Choice’ badge, but 80% of these were ultra-processed.
Cathy Cliff, campaign co-ordinator for the Soil Association, said: “We are shocked to see that the government is not only ignoring the health risks of ultra-processed food, but actively encouraging families to consume it.
“It seems the government is more concerned about business profits than children’s health.
“When every penny counts, it’s almost criminal that families are being tricked into wasting money on junk food that fills you with nothing but health risks.
“Government dietary advice is seriously out of date and failing to provide good advice puts us all at risk.
“It’s wrong for fizzy drinks and crisps to be promoted to children.
‘The government takes the cake. We’re asking you to cut the crap: stop telling families ultra-processed is a good choice and show real leadership by helping us all eat better.
“Other countries such as France, Chile and Brazil are taking steps to make it easier for people to eat less of these unhealthy foods – why is the UK dragging its feet?”
Miss Cliff added: “Many of the products that the NHS Food Scanner app gives a thumbs up or five are unhealthy ultra-processed foods and drinks sold by some of Britain’s most popular brands.
“The government’s campaign for better health has been involved with commercial food companies from the beginning.
“With junk food manufacturers endorsed by the Good Choice badge, it is inexcusable that a public health campaign sometimes benefits food companies more than families.”
Parent Rachel Childs, who completed the survey, said: “The NHS app doesn’t take into account the level of processing and doesn’t suggest switching to nutrient-dense foods – why buy slightly lower sugar biscuits when I could encourage to buy fruit instead?
“The whole idea of planning a nutritionally balanced diet is missing.
“Just swapping processed foods for other processed foods misses concepts like the need for dietary diversity and reducing snacking.”
A healthy living campaign across television, radio, streaming services and social media encouraged parents to download the app.
Promotional leaflets were also given to the parents and carers of the school.
The app has been downloaded over 500,000 times according to the Google Play Store.
However, this does not take into account downloads through other app stores, including Apple, so the number is likely to be significantly higher.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Diets high in ultra-processed foods are also high in calories, sugar, saturated fat and salt, which can cause chronic diseases such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers.
“The Food Scanner app helps families see what’s in their food and drinks and offers product options that can help them reduce sugar, saturated fat and salt, including alternatives to family favorites like now cookies, chips and fizzy drinks.
“We’re always looking to improve the app experience, including expanding and customizing messages around different food and drink categories and welcome feedback from parents and organizations to help us with this process”.