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Should supermarkets be telling us what to eat?

Last week, Waitrose announced that it will be deploying healthy eating specialists onto shop floors to steer customers away from junk food. Is this a move all supermarkets should be adopting?

Hot on the heels of chef Jamie Oliver launching his #AdEnough campaign to take on junk food marketing aimed at kids, Waitrose has also entered the war on unhealthy products, by installing so-called ‘health food police’ to patrol aisles in dozens of its stores.

The supermarket chain is set to send 100 of its shop assistants for training by nutritionists, with the first 11 ‘nutrition nannies’, as one newspaper put it, patrolling stores by the end of May, and the remaining 89 by the end of the year.

Once trained, they will advise and direct customers towards healthier choices on the shop floor.

They will also be qualified to suggest recipes to shoppers, and advise them on how to read food labels and where they can find reliable sources of nutrition information.

A Waitrose spokesman said: ‘Many shoppers have the best intentions to be healthier but busy lives get in the way. We know that small steps, top tips and nuggets of good advice can help them get started and importantly stay on track.’

Food for thought

So does this now mean a trip to Waitrose will see you having ready meals, pizzas and tubs of ice cream snatched out of your trolleys or an unwanted lecture on junk food at the chillers? Thankfully, no. The service will only be available to those who ask, with healthy eating specialists easily identifiable by their aprons and fleeces.

Now, I consider myself pretty clued-up on the nutritional value of food. I know I need to eat a balanced diet, watch my fat intake, and my salt and sugar, too, eat my five a day, stay within the recommended 14 units of alcohol per week and keep to roughly 2,000 calories per day.

But I’m also fully aware that while I couldn’t live permanently on bags of crisps, pork pies, Scotch eggs and Pizza Express Sloppy Guiseppes, the odd indulgence isn’t going to do me a great deal of harm.

Obesity epidemic

Knowing myself, I very much doubt I’d ever ask for assistance from nutritionists. However, I can see the value in them, especially given that the latest figures show that two-thirds of the population are overweight or obese, with a quarter clinically obese, making the UK one of the worst nations in Europe for obesity.

I can also see that you might need a healthy eating specialist if you started a new diet and didn’t know all the ins and the outs. Say, for example, if you decided to go vegetarian or vegan and wanted to know what plant-based foods could replace the nutrients found in meat.

Fortunately, many foods have traffic light labelling on them now – but more help in making sense of labels and working out what’s healthier or not sounds like it could be a good thing.

Do you think all supermarkets should be following Waitrose’s lead, training up staff to advise customers on healthy eating? Or is this taking the promotion of healthy eating a step too far?


If someone has a health or weight problem that would benefit from a change in diet then it seems a positive move to have help available to choose the right food.

My first reaction was to say if they want to steer people away from “junk food” then don’t stock it. Perhaps that should apply still to extreme “junk food” but many foods are fine if eaten responsibly, and I would not like that choice removed. I have a friend who is advised by their doctor to add weight, and the list includes much of what some would no doubt regard as “junk”. But it has a purpose.

Waitrose could help by encouraging customers to cook for themselves rather than eat out – which often means generous portions.

I’m not suggesting that Waitrose offers more ready meals, but offers simple recipes that don’t require a large number of special ingredients or much time to prepare. Tesco has been doing this for some time. I don’t know how ‘healthy’ these recipes are but I think it’s the right approach.

Unfortunately the nearest Waitrose is about ten miles away but if I do meet one of their nutrition adviser I will be suggesting that the company offers discounts on fruit & veg and whatever else they think we should be eating more of.

I actually like to make my own food purchase decisions but hope I know what I am buying. There might be a role for those who buy junk food because it is easier to use and tastes alright. But, would they know that they need help, and would they accept it, when the status quo works for them? Of course bad food, one day turns into good food the next, according to the latest report. Who do we believe? I agree with Malcolm. If it is there on the shelves, it is there to be bought, and who has the time when shopping to stop and chat with the food experts, when the football starts in half an hour and the family needs feeding? Is Waitrose the right shop to be doing this? We are led to believe that those who shop there are usually able to buy what they want and usually know what’s good for them. I will be interested to know how busy these nutritionist become and what the public make of them.

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Perhaps to effect healthy eating nationally, unconditional food vouchers should be received by all citizens, which are only redeemable through buying marked products in stores. For example; whole grains root vegetables, fruit.

Nutritionist Nanny’s could perhaps work with this in mind, with cheap healthy recipes to mind. People could still buy as much junk food as they like. Eating healthy however shouldn’t be a perk of having disposable income in a country that caters to fine dining experiences, and luxury food markets.

June says:
24 April 2018

Great idea! With little home economics training available in some schools, many are left at the mercy of the clever marketing people.
I despair when I see tins of soup in a trolley- with some guidance and easy recipes, fresh vegetable soup for example is more nutritious and often cheaper!!!
Well done Waitrose.

Those of us with disabilities which prevent us chopping and stirring have no choice but to buy ready made soup. Perhaps you should be less judgemental, June.

I suspect that June does care about those with disabilities, Fiona. I see nothing judgemental in her post.

The phrase ‘sent for training by nutritionists’ rings loud alarm bells for me. Anyone can call themselves a ‘nutritionist’, as the profession is not regulated: https://www.bda.uk.com/publications/dietitian_nutritionist.pdf. The regulated (by law) profession are dieticians, some of whom have full-time roles in the NHS. In their free ‘Weekend’ magazine, Waitrose have a column written by their ‘resident nutritionist’ in which she analyses a typical day’s food from some minor celebrity and rates it out of 5. Little that I have read there has mademuch sense in terms of the latest dietary thinking.

The causes of the current plague of obesity are many, complex, and not yet fully understood. If your GP is in many cases not equipped to offer you sensible advice based on a full knowledge of your medical record, what is one to expect from Waitrose staff, however well-intentioned they may be?

I believe they should suggest a healthier option right next to the unhealthy product. Perhaps a big arrow pointing at the healthy one stating why it’s healthier than the other

”A pilot scheme to assess the environmental impact of food is planned for launch in Autumn 2021, with a new ‘eco-label’ to appear on the front of packaging. It aims to help consumers compare food products for sustainability, and push manufacturers to look for more environmentally-friendly ways to produce food. Product scores are based on factors like carbon emissions and water usage during production.

I would be interested to know just what effect labelling food has. It does not seem to have addressed our obesity epidemic. Whether many will have any real interest in food sustainability, particularly when it is not universally used, is questionable. An alternative is to not stock foods that are known to be bad for us or environmentally very damaging, but do we want our food choices made for us?

Anything that the environmental impact on food production has to be good, but I am concerned that the large food companies that are supporting the introduction of eco labels might turn this into a marketing scheme. I would have far more trust in a scheme that was independent.

From the article: “‘However, it’s important to make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes made in the early days of front-of-pack nutrition labelling where several competing schemes emerged, which didn’t help consumers in their purchasing decisions.’”

I agree with that. In a recent Conversation about sustainable palm oil we were introduced to the Giki Badge scheme. I don’t want to see a proliferation of schemes, especially where manufacturers could influence recommendations.

Anything that the environmental impact on food production has to be good, …“. I am questioning whether it will have any impact. There is a danger of not only competing schemes but how these are genuinely assess and rated. There is also a potential problem of too many schemes labelling out food. who will take any notice?

At the risk of stating the obvious, isn’t buying local produce, as sold by small local independent retailers, going to be the most environmentally friendly way of food shopping?