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The snack trap: families in poverty aren’t equipped for the battle against ultra-processed snacks

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Published: 28 November 2023

New research funded by NIHR finds that healthy snacks - such as fruit - are often out of reach for parents on low incomes. The research was conducted at City, University of London and funded via the NIHR Policy Research Unity in Obesity.

Ultra-processed snacks high in fat, sugar, and salt have become normalised in children’s diets. The research found that low-income families in England lack the resources to foster healthier habits in children. It was easier for these families to spend limited resources on snacks such as chocolate and crisps. 

This is because they have a long shelf-life and children are likely to enjoy them. This is in comparison to more expensive produce, which may go off quickly and children may refuse. Also, multi-buy deals and promotions on snacks make them appear better value for money.

In contrast, families with higher incomes are in a better position to stock their homes with children’s preferred fruits and offer these as alternatives to packaged snacks. These families were also able to avoid retail environments with unhealthy temptations. Instead, they opted for vegetable boxes, organic shops or online deliveries.

In the research, all families viewed ultra-processed snacks as rewards and treats. This practice usually began in early infancy and continued as children became more engaged in social events.

Parents trusted branded snack products as they understood them as beneficial for health. However, these products may still be very high in sugar. This is due to the use of claims on snack packaging such as ‘one of your five a day’ and ‘no nasties’. This creates what is known as the ‘health halo’ effect.

The findings come from two investigations of food practices amongst parents across the income spectrum in England. The research took place between 2020-2022 at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London. Researchers conducted interviews and analysed transcripts to understand the snacking patterns across age groups and income levels. The article was published in the journal Proceedings of Nutrition.

The first author and research assistant at the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, Charlotte Gallagher Squires said: ‘The last few decades have seen a growing range and quantity of packaged ‘snack foods’ being marketed and sold in the UK, across our high streets, supermarkets, leisure centres and convenience stores. These items frequently contain elevated levels of fat, sugar and salt, and have undergone extensive industrial processing to enhance taste and shelf life- factors known to have negative impacts on health.

'While we are all exposed to unhealthy food in our environment, our research shows how families on higher incomes have greater resources to avoid the least healthy retail settings and continually expose children to fruit and vegetables. These findings highlight some of the ways income inequality shapes dietary inequalities as children grow up, and suggest ways policy could intervene to address this.’

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