Chloe Mackean, Food Foundation

By Chloe Mackean, Business Engagement Manager, The Food Foundation

The impact that our diets have on climate change is now well documented. The food system accounts for a third of greenhouse gas emissions (GHGE), of which livestock farming is a major contributor. Changing what we eat by reducing the amount of meat and dairy in our diets by 30%, will go some way to helping us meet our net zero climate targets.

A quarter of people in the UK now live with obesity and 38% with overweight. Levels of diet-related disease such as type 2 diabetes are also increasing. We are sleepwalking into a health crisis that will have significant economic repercussions. In an age where convenience is king, time-poor, cash-strapped citizens are vulnerable to buying unhealthy food that is on offer in supermarkets far more often than healthier alternatives. As a nation we are also eating out, and ordering in more than ever before. In 2020, the number of adults ordering food from delivery apps reached 24.8 million, a 55% increase from 2015.

Retailers and the Out of Home (OOH) sector act as the keystone between the upstream food businesses, and citizens and play essential roles in shaping our food environment. Both sectors have the potential to influence our diets through what they decide to put on their shelves or menus, setting the price for different products, and determining the way in which food is marketed.

Given the significant role both sectors play, and the urgent need to tackle both the climate and health crises simultaneously, The Food Foundation’s State of the Nation’s Food Industry report focuses on these two sectors and assesses the progress they are making in shaping the food environment so that citizens can eat a more sustainable and healthy diet.

state of the nation 2023 report






The State of the Nation’s Food Industry (SOFI) report found that:

The out of home sector is lagging behind with disclosing data and setting healthier sales targets

A good indicator of how healthy and sustainable business portfolios are, is the balance of products companies sell. The food industry needs to sell less unhealthy and environmentally damaging foods if it is to help shift our consumption patterns.

Of the 27 major retail and out of home businesses looked at, eight companies (Aldi, Asda, Greggs, Lidl, M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose) have a target and disclose data for high fat, salt and sugar products (HFSS). Six companies (Compass Group UK & Ireland, Sodexo, Lidl, Sainsbury’s, Tesco and Waitrose) have a target and disclose data on sales of fruit and vegetables.

Overall retailers are doing better in this area than the OOH sector when it comes to setting healthier sales (by reducing sales of HFSS foods and increasing sales of fruit and veg) targets and disclosing data. Within the OOH sector, the contract caterers have made the most progress, with Compass making a positive shift this year by starting to disclose data on HFSS. Greggs continues to be the leader among quick service restaurants as they have a target to increase sales of healthy food and disclose data on both fruit and vegetables and HFSS foods. Disappointingly, some businesses have become less transparent, with Whitbread no longer disclosing data or having a target for sales of fruit and vegetables.

UK retail and food service sectors failing to take action on key environmental measures

Despite evidence that the reduction of meat consumption will help us to meet our net zero climate targets, the SOFI report found that no major UK food retail or food service business has a target for and discloses the % of sales coming from both animal and plant proteins. To add to this, just 1% of advertising spend goes towards fruit and vegetables and 0.8% on plant based dairy alternatives compared to 9% on meat and dairy products.

Plant-based chicken alternatives are on average 27% more expensive than a chicken breast and 62% of main meals offered by the major UK restaurants contain meat, whereas only 32% were meatless. It is clear the industry needs to support consumers to reduce the amount of meat in their diet.

Retailers and manufacturers need to do more to help food insecure families afford healthy food

In April 2023, food price inflation reached its highest level for four decades. Families on a low-income have borne the brunt of food price inflation and are subsequently finding it harder to buy healthier food. Sales of fruit and veg are the lowest in 50 years. Our findings show that healthy food is not as widely promoted through multibuys as unhealthy food. Over a quarter of multibuys are on HFSS food and drink, compared to just 4.5% on fruit and vegetables and 4.2% on staple carbohydrates.

We also looked at several product categories that have the potential to improve the healthfulness of children’s diets (yoghurt, cereal, formula and lunchbox items). For yoghurt, we found that although there are single portion yogurts available across the major UK retailers at very low prices (ranging from £0.07 – £0.14 a pot), the very cheapest yogurts are also higher in sugar (9-10g/100g). Just 9% of single portion yogurt pots can be categorised as being low sugar (<5g/100g).

Salt levels in food eaten out of home are dangerously high

Assessing 54 of the major quick service, casual dining restaurants and cafes in the UK, we found that 24 of them had more than half of their main meals exceeding 50% of the recommended daily intake (RDI) of salt. Other nutrients of concern (saturated fat, sugar and calories) were also analysed. We found that pubs were the unhealthiest subsector, with Walkabout, Sizzling Pub, Flaming Grill Pub Co, Ember Inns and Brewhouse serving the largest number of main meals that are regularly exceeding 50% of the RDI for calories, saturated fat, salt and sugar. The Stonegate Pub Company was the worst pub – and therefore worst restaurant overall.

Using the same group of restaurants we also analysed how many of them offered vegetarian mains. We found that 62% of main meals offered by major UK restaurants contain meat, whereas only 32% were meatless.

What needs to change?

A food business can demonstrate it is committed to supporting healthier and more sustainable diets by setting targets to reduce the sales of unhealthy and unsustainable foods and disclosing their sales data. Without targets a company has no clear ambition, and without data disclosure, their targets have no real teeth. Forward-thinking businesses are already moving in this direction. Others will need to take action in order to keep up. Policy makers should also show that health and the environment is a priority by introducing mandatory reporting in these areas and creating an even playing field for businesses. We hope that 2024 will be the year that policy makers will commit to a clear direction of travel for the UK’s food system.


Sustainable Diets Course: Fundamentals for Human and Planetary Health