Revealed: The Tricks Businesses Use To Make You Purchase Unhealthy Food

'Upselling' tactics have been blamed for fuelling the obesity crisis.

07/09/2017 09:45 BST

Big businesses are tricking the public into purchasing unhealthy food, fuelling the obesity crisis as a result.

That’s according to a new report, which suggests upselling techniques used in coffee shops, petrol stations, fast food outlets, newsagents, restaurants, cinemas and pubs are leading customers to consume thousands of additional calories.

The report, which includes a survey of more than 2,000 UK adults, shows that consumers face an average of 106 verbal pushes towards unhealthy choices each year as they are asked whether they would like to upgrade to larger meals and drinks, add high calorie toppings or sides to their order or take advantage of special offers on unhealthy food and drink.

Published by the Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) and Slimming World, the report exposes that the average person consumes an additional 330 calories each week – 17,000 per year – as a result of businesses upselling high calorie food and drink. Over the course of the year that could result in an estimated weight gain of 5lbs (2.3kg).

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The report reveals that, in the course of a week, upselling techniques used by businesses resulted in 34% of people buying a larger coffee than intended, 33% upgrading to a large meal in a fast food restaurant, 36% buying chocolate at the till at a newsagents or petrol station and 35% adding chips or onion rings to the side of their pub or restaurant meal.

The findings showed that young people are even more likely to be exposed to upselling, with 18-24 year-olds experiencing it 166 times each year – nearly every other day – and going on to consume an extra 750 calories per week as a result. This could lead to an estimated weight gain of 11lbs (5kg) over the course of a year.

The report reveals that businesses often push people towards upsells that customers will perceive as offering greater value for money. People who take an upsell will generally spend around 17% more money but receive 55% more calories.

To combat the problem, RSPH and Slimming World are calling for health professionals to use Making Every Contact Count initiatives to make the public aware of the ‘unhealthy conversations’ they may encounter and for responsible businesses and retailers to receive business rates relief for promoting healthier choices. The criteria to qualify should include:

  • Businesses do not train staff to upsell unhealthy, high-calorie food and drink - such as foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) as defined by the nutrient profile model developed by the Foods Standards Agency (FSA).

  • Businesses to pledge to only upsell healthy food and drink

  • Businesses provide clear in-store calorie information for all their food and drink products (including alcohol).

  • Staff pay is not linked to the upselling of unhealthy, high-calorie food and drink. Businesses should not financially incentivise food and drink that is damaging to the public’s health when consumed to excess.

RSPH and Slimming World also want to empower people to insist that they get what they asked for, using the hashtag #JustThisThanks.

Shirley Cramer, chief executive of RSPH said: “Obesity is the public health challenge of our generation and if not addressed urgently could tip over the point of no return. Incentivising businesses to help keep their customers healthy by offering reduced business rates could be a positive step to help reduce the burden placed on our health care system by obesity-related illness. It also gives businesses the opportunity to step up to the plate and take their fair share of responsibility for the public’s health and wellbeing.

“Almost everyone can relate to the feeling of being pressured into buying extra calories through upselling. Our latest report shows the extent to which these extra calories can really add up, often without us noticing. We hope that through this work the public can become more aware of how businesses target them with upselling and help people to maintain a healthy weight.”

Sharon Hodgson MP, Shadow Public Health Minister said: “The promotion of unhealthy food has clearly infiltrated our society and is contributing significantly to the burgeoning obesity crisis we see today. Alongside the many actions to address obesity, it is crucial that consumers are empowered to make healthier choices at the checkout rather than being bombarded with junk food marketing or encouraged to upgrade to a larger drink or meal than the one originally ordered.”

Commenting on the report findings, Caroline Cerny, alliance lead at the Obesity Health Alliance, said: “It’s all too easy to eat more than we need when we are encouraged to buy larger sizes, add unhealthy extras or take advantage of special offers when it comes to unhealthy food and drink. There is clear evidence that marketing techniques persuade us to eat and drink more of the wrong types of food and this is driving the obesity epidemic. The food industry can play a vital role by helping to make healthier choices the easy choice and creating a healthier food environment for us all.” 

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