New research claims apps like Uber Eats, Deliveroo and Menulog promote unhealthy food to low-income suburbs in Victoria – but the platforms argue it is ‘untrue’ and ‘misleading’

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  • New research from VicHealth has found food delivery platforms are more likely to promote unhealthy food options to low-income suburbs in Victoria compared to more affluent ones.
  • It found that during the coronavirus pandemic, residents in low-income suburbs had to scroll past an average of 23 unhealthy food venues before finding a healthier option.
  • However, Menulog, Deliveroo and Uber Eats have rejected the claims of the report, calling them “untrue and misleading”.

Research from VicHealth found food delivery platforms promoted unhealthy food more to Victorian residents living in low-income suburbs compared to those in affluent suburbs.

The research assessed food options and promotions on three of the state’s most popular food delivery platforms – Menulog, Deliveroo and UberEats – and compared them between Victoria’s highest and lowest income suburbs.

It found that during the coronavirus pandemic, these platforms were more likely to push unhealthy food such as burgers, donuts and soft drinks to people in low-income areas (95%) compared to higher-income suburbs (69%).

People in lower-income suburbs had to scroll past an average of 23 unhealthy food venues before they found a healthy option – an increase of 12 venues compared to before the pandemic began. People in more affluent suburbs, however, only had to scroll past seven unhealthy venues before landing on a healthier choice.

VicHealth CEO Dr Sandro Demaio said in a statement that as people are using these apps more, what they are being pushed to order can impact their health.

“It’s unethical that during a health pandemic these multi-million-dollar platforms target people who are already facing barriers to good health with harmful promotions like high fat meal deals, discounts off burgers and chips, and free sugary soft drinks,” he said.

“These platforms know people are more likely to buy options that are easy to find and cheap. That’s why it’s so concerning to see a huge difference in what’s available and promoted in our rich and poor suburbs – sushi and salad are on offer for Toorak, but salty, high sugar fast foods for low-income suburbs.”

During the pandemic, delivery platforms were also found to have ramped up promotions featuring free ‘add-ons’ of unhealthy food like dessert, soft drinks and garlic bread. There was also an increase in options from wine cellars and bottle shops.

Demaio wanted food services held to a higher standard when marketing and selling their products and to see healthier food being promoted regardless of where people live.

“We’d also like to see apps work with their partners to deliver more promotions on healthier food such as salads, vegetable dishes and sushi,” he added.

The research also identified a major difference in how food was marketed compared to its nutritional content. While venues selling mainly high-calorie foods across low and high-income suburbs were described with words like ‘healthy’, ‘fresh’ and ‘lean’, in low income areas, food was more commonly touted for its price and perceived ‘value’.

Demaio further highlighted the importance of thinking carefully when ordering on these apps.

“These platforms try to manipulate you into buying and eating more than you need,” he said. “Some of the meal deals we saw on these apps contained almost your entire days’ worth of kilojoules in one meal.”

Delivery platforms dispute the researce

A Menulog spokesperson refuted the claims made by VicHealth, saying the company doesn’t market to people based on how healthy a meal is perceived to be.

“The claims made by VicHealth are nonfactual; Menulog unequivocally does not market to people based on the perceived ‘healthiness’ of a meal,” the spokesperson told Business Insider Australia via email.

“Menulog is a marketplace that connects as many local customers with as many local restaurants as possible; it would be in no one’s interest – restaurants, customers or the community – to limit the options customers see by location.”

The spokesperson added that the restaurants available to customers at any point in time represent the local businesses operating in that area.

“The priority of restaurants displayed in Menulog search or via marketing channels is based on a number of data points such as the customer’s order history and preferences (e.g. favourite cuisine types), as well as popular or top-rated restaurants in their local area – not one of these data points is ‘health’,” they said.

Menulog considered VicHealth’s claims as misleading and said they could affect Victoria’s businesses.

“Menulog takes its responsibility to the community very seriously and we are disappointed to read the misleading comments made by VicHealth, particularly given VicHealth was not able to provide any requested details about how the study was conducted or the results,” the spokesperson said.

“Menulog was also not consulted at any stage by VicHealth to understand how the platform or marketing actually works.

“This is an extremely difficult time for the restaurant industry in Victoria, with many businesses relying on online ordering and delivery. Not only are these claims untrue and misleading, but they have the potential to significantly impact the livelihood of local businesses.”

Likewise, Uber rejected suggestions that it promotes unhealthy food to lower-income groups or any other groups. And, like Menulog, Uber says that menus which appear on the app are a reflection of the restaurants in a particular geographical location.

“As a food delivery platform we actively seek to partner with local restaurants in all the areas we operate,” an Uber spokesperson told Business Insider Australia via email.

“Uber Eats is already a platform of choice, with more than twenty thousand restaurants and hundreds of thousands of menu items available on the Uber Eats platform across the country.

“We are connecting Australians with healthy choices every day. Last year 37 thousand salads were ordered on the Uber Eats app in a single month, while in August the Poke bowl was the most ordered item nationally.”

The spokesperson added that Uber Eats will keep expanding its restaurant lineup while also “using enhanced product design” so that “customers easily navigate to selections they’re interested in, including healthy tabs.”

It’s down to personal choice

Deliveroo also considered VicHealth’s claims to be “untrue” and “misleading”.

“Our focus is to provide all customers with access to the foods that they love,” a Deliveroo spokesperson told Business Insider Australia via email.

“The restaurants and cafes available on our platform for any given postcode are reflective of the restaurants and cafes open and operating within that postcode. We work with all our restaurant partners and encourage them to provide meaningful promotions to help drive orders and to build a loyal following.

“Further, we’ve been actively working with our restaurant partners to expand the healthy options available on our platform and we’re really proud that the number of healthy restaurants on the Deliveroo platform has grown by 59% over the past year alone.”

On Deliveroo, what customers see when they open the app is the restaurant they last ordered from. They are then provided any deals that restaurants are offering. Then new restaurant profiles are shown.

The Deliveroo spokesperson added that the platform “is committed to making it easier for consumers to make informed food choices” by providing them nutritional information, many restaurant options and the ability to search by their dietary needs.

“At the end of the day, it comes down to personal choice as to which restaurant or cafe a person chooses to order from,” they said.

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