Are supermarket deals sweet, or do they need more balance?

Supermarkets are awash with discounts. Picture: Getty
Supermarkets are awash with discounts. Picture: Getty
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As a university study claims supermarket ‘buy one get one free’ offers are biased towards sugary foods, Kate Pickles goes shopping to put the theory to the test

In one aisle there are 37 offers on biscuits alone. Elsewhere in the sprawling supermarket it’s hard to escape the cut-price luxury tins and better-than-half-price offers on endless boxes of chocolates.

It may be nearing Christmas, giving stores more reason to be festooned with festive promotions understandably, but it’s hard to deny that the signs are not good for anyone pushing the healthy agenda of supermarkets.

Walking into any Tesco, Asda, Morrisons or Sainsbury’s store, shoppers are immediately hit with the latest promotions out to tempt them.

Deals such as buy one get one frees have been blamed for fuelling the nation’s rising weight issues which have seen Scotland’s adults top the UK’s adult obesity league, with 65 per cent being classed as overweight or obese.

And it’s getting worse, with the latest NHS Information Centre statistics also showing that 30 per cent of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese.

But is it the job of the supermarket to ensure responsible marketing or up to the shopper to decide what goes in their trolley?

Tesco, on Broughton Street, is greeting customers with an entire section devoted to Christmas treats ranging from kids’ selection boxes to tubs of savoury biscuits for the obligatory Christmas Day cheese board.

Sweet tooths will be hard-pressed to choose between Fox’s Fabulously Special Selection 650g, down from £12 to £5, or the equally good value McVities Classic Collection Tin, also less than half-price at £4.50 from £10.

Similar offers at Asda in Leith are stacked at the end of aisles with various tin selections averaging £4 and Maltesers, Mars and Cadbury selection boxes all costing £2.

And Morrisons and Sainsbury’s are not shy with festive offerings either, with mince pies and yule logs being marketed at both places for a £1.

The sweet promotions were not exclusively limited to Christmas, with many of the supermarkets having more of the run-of-the-mill biscuits at half-price or serving up two-for-one offers from its own bakery.

Tubes of Fruit Pastilles, Smarties and Milky Ways can all be bought from Morrisons for £1 and shoppers can pick from the 330-350g range of Roses, Toblerone Tinys and Chocolate Orange Segments that are available at two for £6 at Sainsbury’s.

There are also fizzy drinks up for grabs at discounted rates at all of the stores, with two-litre bottles of Pepsi for £1, half-price six-packs of cans and own brand offers often featuring four bottles for £2.

But while these promotions may have every dentist and healthy-eating specialist quivering, it is well worthy of noting that sugar-filled treats were not the only bargains to be had – the fizzy drink offers above applied equally to the sugar-free diet varieties.

Fruit and vegetables, many seasonal, could also be picked up on various money-off or “bogof” promotions at all four of the supermarkets visited. Half-price fresh cranberries kept up the festive feel, with 300g costing £2 at Tesco and £1.50 for 250g at Morrisons.

Bags of oranges, satsumas and clementines were all available for around the magic pound mark and each store had a decent selection of vegetables, ranging from broccoli to mange tout, that had been discounted in some way.

Pre-prepared salads, packets of watercress, rocket and sweet leaf lettuce tend to range between £1 and £1.50, with many places advertising two for £2.

Fruit-filled punnets of melon and grapes, pineapple, chopped mango, strawberries and fruit salad, each around 200g, could typically be bought at £2 each or two for £3.

Less in the way of offers could be found when looking at wholefood produce such as nuts and seeds. Even when supermarkets had a good selection of stock, such as the 150g bags of cashew nuts, almonds and pistachios for £1.70 at Morrisons, there were no incentives to bulk buy.

Other natural items that you might put on your shopping list, such as lentils, various beans and chickpeas, were certainly not as prominently placed and even difficult to source at times without help from the shop assistants.

This is most likely due to demand and that cultivating natural crops is likely less profitable or easy as mass-producing chocolate bars, for instance.

It is undoubtable that the healthy products are there to be found but they can take nearly as much digging out as for the farmers.

But while the biggest and best offers were tilted towards sugary goods, shoppers can get some of their five-a-day for a decent price, too. Supermarkets say the offers are determined by what sells – and it is Christmas after all.


Andrew Opie, British Retail Consortium Director of Food and Sustainability, argues that the wide selection of special offers to be found in the shops are a huge benefit to consumers

There’s no such thing as an unhealthy food, only an unhealthy diet, but we recognise the need to increase fruit and vegetable consumption and are doing so through innovative products, prominent promotions and competitive pricing.

Our key message is that eating healthily is not more expensive, in fact customers have never had better access to affordable fresh food. It’s positive that the Edinburgh Evening News has found plenty of in-store evidence to support this.

As well as fruit and vegetable promotions, retailers are doing a wide range of things which are enabling customers to make healthier choices. These include reducing fat, salt and sugar, offering portion size options and ensuring that on-pack labelling gives people clear and consistent nutritional information about the products they buy.

Retailers will continue to offer and encourage healthy eating choices but ultimately it is customers who make those choices. For real change to be achieved, people need to be educated about healthy lifestyles.

Edinburgh nutritionist Frances Bavin, 36, argues that people need to think more carefully about special offers they see in shops and make sure that they put their health first

I tell my clients they only need to go into about three sections of the supermarket and to leave the rest well alone.

They only need fruit and veg, meat and fish, some dairy and grains like rice, and I actually go as far to say to them: “If it has an ingredients list on it, leave it alone.”

I am pretty cynical about manufactured, processed food, even the stuff that has health claims on it, and I’m sure the food manufacturers and supermarkets are far more interested in profit than the health of their customers.

I think people should take their health more seriously and think for themselves and I would hope they don’t see chocolate and think “I’ll buy that because it’s a good offer”. Hopefully consumers will put their health first and not just stock up on bad foods because they’re cheaper – and actually, they’re not always cheaper than natural foods if you are shopping and cooking carefully.

It would be good to see supermarkets put cabbages on buy-one-get-one-free but then I don’t know how that would work for the farmer. The bottom line is to use your common sense.