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What role do supermarkets play in the shift towards healthier eating?

A final year student studying for a BSc in Psychology, at the University of Exeter. Informed about nutrition and mental wellbeing, striving to unite the two in a professional capacity.  Broad work experience and volunteering in this field. Next move – a Master’s in Nutrition.


Spending time with the Marks&Spencer in-house Nutritionist revealed that commercial nutrition is adapting in line with the demand for wholesome eating. M&S continue to retain a fantastic reputation for food excellence and exciting treats.

M&S are not only altering everyday lines in compliance with government recommendations (reduction in sugar or saturated fats etc.), but they are going the extra mile to deliver healthy products to the customer. Quality and taste never falls by the wayside, even as M&S work to introduce healthier foods, both in response to market trends of healthy eating and owing to an awareness as a leading food provider of the preventative qualities and core benefit to our health. M&S is an international supermarket and commercial organisation which must deliver value to the shareholder. The shift towards healthier eating presents a commercial challenge owing to many products having less attractive margins.

Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Whole Foods and other competitors also hold M&S to account in maintaining product lines. M&S has the intention of reducing sugar sales, for example by placing portioned nut and fruit snack packets by tills as the last thing the customer looks to grab (alongside their Percy Pigs). However, if all competitors still have chocolate lining their tills, M&S’s fear of losing their customers to this more appealing treat may prevent these changes. M&S, like all commercial supermarkets, must protect their market share, which in part means maintaining ‘less healthy’ products that are historically and consistently profitable cash cows.

This can make the necessary shift toward healthier food promotion like wading through treacle. Relative to other supermarkets, the M&S product range focuses on luxury classic goods, targeting the older demographic in the UK. For this reason, there is not undue hurry to change
to new vegan and vegetarian lines which encourage a more ‘flexitarian’ way of eating, when their loyal customer is more of a ‘meat-and-two-veg’ type buyer, looking for foods with an essence of nostalgia and familiarity.

On the other hand, it is evident that there is a positive shift towards these ‘healthier’ choices in the ‘grab and go’ section, for those young professionals passing through on the fly.

As examples, their ‘eat well’ and ‘balanced for you’ lines, which are calorie controlled and nutrition focused, are inspiringly in a phase of growth. Also, when working as part of the Food Product Development team in Dairy, the perfecting of high protein yogurt was underway.

‘Free From’ ranges are being investigated and introduced, in a way in which they speak to the customer of that nostalgia. As an example, a new vegan cauliflower cheese melt was released just in time for Christmas 2018 – broadening horizons and options for dairy free individuals, or those who are that way inclined, to indulge. Supermarket action is evident. A parallel are Waitrose ‘Healthy Eating Specialists’, introduced in April 2018 to educate about current recommendations for healthy eating, explain food labelling and suggest healthy swaps. We are not asking for them to go into details about gut health and the microbiome, but their progression aids public education and overall health – starting from the inside, out.

Overall, working in Nutrition and Food Product Development at M&S was hugely encouraging and insightful, showing that supermarkets are on board the healthy eating movement.

M&S are indeed aware of the necessary change towards an emphasis on food packed full of goodness, to aid our immune systems, and to minimizing saturated fats, sugars and suchlike. In the nature of their foundations, supermarkets must make a profit, and are less agile than small independent traders, highlighting the reason that perhaps the change is slower than it should be.

Also, in the case of M&S, change may be quieter than nutrition enthusiasts may hope for, in order for them to satisfy their target market customer. That said, supermarkets have profound influence, and it is exciting to see the growing awareness and implementation of food as a proactive means to our holistic health and the focus on nutritional lifestyle medicine.

I whole-heartedly support Nutritank and cant wait to see what else they achieve.

Cecilia Jennings

BSc Psychology Student

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