Health on the High Street


Dr Jane Hand (Department of History, University of Warwick)


Associate Professor Catherine Cox (Director, UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland & School of History, University College Dublin


Health on the High Street: Consumerism, the NHS and Low-Fat Diets in Britain since the 1970s


UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland Seminar Series, 8 February 2018


Sainsbury’s Vitapint packaging, 1981 (four-sided tetra pack)

Since the postwar period food choice and diet have become increasingly intertwined with wider health and food policies focused on disease prevention, public health and medical service provision. As epidemiological research into chronic disease causation identified high intake of particular nutrients or minerals as harmful to health, retailers recognised the potential of products that reduced or removed these components in order to encourage consumers to make healthy choices. The National Health Service (NHS) was an important educator in this respect, urging at-risk patients to engage in new health behaviours and make better lifestyle choices by changing diet and exercising more. It promoted the idea that individualised health risks could be overcome (at least in part) by complying with a myriad of health advice that included specific recommendations about food consumption. The resulting emergence of public anxiety around the role of unhealthy foods in disease causation enabled food producers, manufacturers and retailers to co-opt the health education message to create new health food markets that championed various foods as potentially disease-preventing.

This podcast charts the development of food choice as an important health behavior promulgated through both public health and primary and secondary care. It will emphasise the role food and health consumerism played in communicating scientific evidence about the impact of healthy eating on disease prevention to the public. To do so, it will examine the development of low-fat products by certain supermarkets, focusing in particular on the creation of market segmentation around low-fat milk. It uses this case study to emphasise the interconnectedness of the NHS and the retail sector in attempting to reduce chronic disease mortality rates.

Jane Hand

Dr Jane Hand is a Research Fellow for the Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award ‘The Cultural History of the NHS’ in the Centre for the History of Medicine at the University of Warwick. She completed her PhD in 2015, which analysed the role and function of visual images in constructing knowledge about healthy eating and disease prevention in postwar Britain. She researches public health and health education in Britain with a focus on the visual components of health campaigning, chronicity and the place of prevention.

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