For those trying to feed a family on a basic salary, the deals offered by supermarkets are often a good way to stretch a weekly budget. But, just as unhealthy food products have been under pressure for some time, now their pricing and promotions are coming under attack.
According to the National Consumer Council (NCC), the number of promotions for 'unhealthy' processed foods by leading supermarkets far outweighs those for 'healthy' fresh produce, such as fruit and vegetables. Supermarkets claim this is what consumers want.
Food manufacturers and retailers fund scores of offers for processed food, from multi-buys and price promotions to buy one, get one free. Customers get cheap deals while supermarkets and brands shift product. The only loser is the expanding waistline of consumers.
The NCC's report 'Healthy Competition', published last week, set retailers a target of running 33% of their price promotions for healthy products. The only one to approach this standard so far is Marks & Spencer (see table). Morrisons and Somerfield came joint last.
The report's author, Sue Dibb, says retailers are failing the public, especially consumers on lower incomes.
'There is a definite class distinction - people on lower incomes eat less healthily,' she says. 'If you keep discounting unhealthy products and economy brands, these people are forced to pick them.'
Dibb singles out the Co-op as the only supermarket to have a specific policy for promoting healthy food in-store.
From the grocer's point of view, it is hard to discount fruit and vegetables in the same way as processed foods, according to Verdict Research senior analyst Gavin Rothwell. 'The problem is shelf life. If you're discounting baked beans, it is not a major issue if you sell 20% less than planned on a big promotion because they can still be sold 10 months later.'
Storing a large amount of perishable food is also a problem for consumers.
'What's the point of buying two packs of oranges for the price of one when you have to eat them within a limited time frame,' asks Rothwell.
Planet Retail analyst Bryan Roberts believes margins will always be paramount in determining which products are promoted. 'Retailers make more money on processed food because they can add value with branding. It is more difficult to make money on fresh food because at the end of the day a banana is a banana,' he says.
A Somerfield spokesman says the NCC's report did not reflect the supermarket's true position. 'We offer a healthy balance of promotions across the store - we can only sell and promote the products our customers buy.' He adds that the retailer was first to promote the five-a-day fruit and vegetable recommendation in-store.
Somerfield also insists it has made healthy ranges more prominent in its new Marketfresh in-store format. However, this format has only been launched in relatively affluent areas so far.
Asda, which came sixth of the nine retailers surveyed, plans to take action. 'We're looking into the proportion of healthy and unhealthy foods on promotion and will be increasing our focus on healthier alternatives,' says the firm's nutrition manager, Sue Malcolm. However, she adds that an unhealthy product on promotion generally outperforms a healthy one running the same offer.
Steve Maxwell, marketing director of Worldwide Fruit, which supplies Sainsbury's, Tesco and Morrisons, says many fruit companies are trying alternatives to buy one, get one free. 'When you do price promotions such as two for the price of one, there is an increase in sales of about 30%. Increase the bag size and it doubles,'he says.
As most fruit and vegetable products are sold as unbranded in-store there is little scope to launch a branded competitor. However, UK fruit producers are already attempting to build British apples as a brand in their own right through its trade associations.
Maxwell says the supermarkets' attitude toward fresh produce is positive.
'There has been a change in the way supermarkets have approached our products over the past year, thanks to the government's healthy-eating drive.'
Healthy eating is a undoubtedly a serious issue for retailers. But the responsibility in changing eating habits will inevitably be shared with consumers - after all, it is they who decide whether to look for fruit or chocolate.