What's Behind Fuel Us Don't Fool Us?

A behind the scenes look at our campaign "Fuel Us Don't Fool Us" and why we decided to tackle this issue.

Like everything we do at Bite Back, our new campaign, Fuel Us, Don’t Fool Us, is borne out of conversations and stories from young people about what it’s like to grow up in a broken food system. It should be easy to eat healthily. But every day, our brilliant young campaigners like Alice, Maya and Emmanuel, tell us how hard it is when their supermarkets, high streets and even school canteens are flooded with highly processed unhealthy food. This is at a time when one in three children are at risk of a future blighted by food related ill health.

Young people want to eat nourishing, sustainable food, but are confused by misleading packaging and bombarded with enticing offers and clever, culturally relevant adverts on their phones, laptop and TV screens. When Alice looks for a snack after school, her cereal bar prominently says “high in protein” but is still packed with sugar. Or when Dev takes his little cousin to the supermarket whose eye is drawn to chocolate pots at child height, with a cute bunny on a skateboard and labels like “high in calcium and vitamin D” but wouldn’t currently be allowed to be advertised on children’s TV due to being unhealthy.

Maya and Dev speaking to camera February 2024 Stunt Day Junk Food Header

They wanted to investigate this further to see if the hard data matched their personal stories and experiences. Big Food companies are keen to talk up their purpose, responsibility and nutrition credentials and say they are part of the solution to transforming our nation’s health, but how much does their walk match their talk?

We decided to find out how much of the food made, marketed and sold in the UK by some of the biggest global food and drink businesses in the UK is actually healthy. It turns out that this is not a straightforward task. Big Food businesses don’t tend to publish comprehensive, transparent, comparable data about their unhealthy food sales (and a previous move by Government to enforce this via the Food Data Transparency Partnership has been weakened now that it is voluntary for companies to report). Luckily we had the help of researchers from the University of Oxford who have previously investigated this issue.

Using Euromonitor sales data, they identified the top 10 global food businesses selling packaged food and drinks in the UK (based on value sales). Together these businesses sell £18.5 billion worth of food and drink every year and are behind some of the UK’s most popular brands that line our supermarket shelves and fill our cupboards. The researchers matched sales data with nutrition data to identify just how much of the products sold are unhealthy (based on the UK nutrient profiling model which identifies products as high in fat sugar or salt - HFSS).

The results are stark. For seven out of ten of the businesses, more than two-thirds of their packaged food and drink sales were from unhealthy products. This represents £12 billion of revenue. For two global businesses, Ferrero & Related Parties and Mondelez nearly all their 2022 sales were from unhealthy food and drinks.

The food system that we’re currently living under is working against us.


Bite Back Activist

The fact that most of the biggest and most successful food and drink businesses in the UK take most of their sales from junk food explains why our environment is flooded with unhealthy options. Their business model is reliant on selling huge quantities of junk food and marketing that appeals to children. Quickly chocolate, biscuits and crisps are moving away from being an occasional treat to a normalised part of every meal time. This might explain why Nestle created a Kit Kat breakfast cereal (to complement the other 15 plus Kit Kat variants available) and why Mondelez is not content with selling just Oreo biscuits but have created Oreo breakfast cereal, lunchbox cookies and yoghurt and even doughnuts.

Alice, Maya and Emmanuel were right. The data shows that this is not just the stories and experiences of a few of Bite Back’s young people but a wider systemic issue. The purpose of the campaign is to shine a light on how much of the food and drink sold in the UK is unhealthy and mobilise support from a wider group of young people and parents.

They are calling on business and government to act now to prioritise child health over profit. We decided to share the research findings and our methodology with the businesses and offer them the opportunity to provide a comment on the data. These are both published alongside the report here.

We are open about the fact our data has limitations. It follows an established protocol from Oxford University used in other peer reviewed research. It’s based on 2022 Euromonitor sales data (the most recent dataset available) so some businesses have reformulated certain products since then. They may also have launched new unhealthy products. There are exclusions — including powdered coffee, tea, alcohol and seasonal products. But the simple fact is we are publishing this data because businesses don’t. If they disagree with our findings or want to pick holes in our methodology, then they should prove us wrong by publishing sales weighted data defined by the UK nutrient profiling model.

This report launched what we plan to be an ongoing campaign that aims to shine a light on the global businesses that shape what we eat and examine the impact they are having on human and planetary health. Where there are positive stories we will tell them but we won’t shy away from highlighting the problems we see.

We are starting with manufacturers and health, but will be moving on to examine their climate impact and use of greenwashing before setting our sights on the out of home sector and retailers.

We hope that we can now match the stories of Bite Back’s young people with the data and evidence that will make business and Government take note and act to protect child health.

Author Bio

James Toop

Before joining Bite Back, James was CEO of Ambition Institute, helping grow it into the largest leadership development charity in education. "As a parent, I notice it when I take my kids round the supermarket," he says. "Shopping feels like a constant battle to pull them away from the unhealthy products targeted at them. Unhealthy options flood our streets, screens and schools: young people are so overwhelmed by the bombardment that they can't see or think of alternatives."