£4 Dominos and £5 KFC: health fears as fast food lunch becomes ‘workplace appropriate’

<span>‘These options are not an ­everyday nourishing choice.’ </span><span>Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer</span>
‘These options are not an ­everyday nourishing choice.’ Photograph: Gary Calton/the Observer

Office workers looking for a cheap lunch on the high street might struggle. With inflation pushing up prices in recent years, a sandwich, snack and drink at popular coffee chains can now cost upwards of £10, while even the average supermarket meal deal has risen by more than 21% in price since before the pandemic.

But now fast-food chains have moved to fill the gap in the market. In March, KFC introduced a new lunch deal for £5.49, offering a fried chicken wrap with a drink and side – either crisps or a cookie – and available from Monday to Friday until 3pm. “KFC is now workplace appropriate, for when finger lickin’ is not,” the chain said in its promotional material.

Last month, pizza chain Domino’s followed suit, launching its £4 lunch deal.

In a television advert, an employee brings one of the £4 pizzas back to the office to the envy of colleagues. “We’re looking to steal our competitors’ lunch,” said Domino’s marketing director Harry Dromey. “There’s considerable headroom for us to grow during the day.” It also announced last month it was planning to open 700 more stores by 2033.

In a cost of living crisis, affordable takeaway food options are in high demand. Last year, bakery chain Greggs reported record pre-tax profits and plans to expand into more stores after cornering 19.6% of the takeaway breakfast market in the UK in 2023, beating McDonald’s. It offers breakfast meal deals starting at £2.85 and lunch deals starting at £3.60.

Health experts have expressed concerns about fast food chains, such as KFC and Domino’s, offering cheap lunch deals. Aisling Pigott, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association, said: “These options are not an ­everyday nourishing choice. The issue with many of these meals is the foods they displace. Many are high in fat or sugar and have hardly any fibre. As a one-off, there is nothing wrong with any of these meals. Frequency is the concern.”

Fran Bernhardt of Sustain, which campaigns for better food and farming, and a ban on junk food advertising pre-watershed, is worried that fast food is filling a void as prices at other outlets, and of healthier options, rise. “It’s becoming more difficult for many of us to get healthier foods, especially the increasing numbers of us living at the sharp end of the cost of living crisis. The flood of unhealthy food is limiting our choices.”

Meaningful Vision, which studies the food service industry, found that fast-food chain promotions increased by 15% in 2023 compared with 2022. In 2024, promotional activities have risen a further 22%, mostly in the form of meal deals. “The growth of meal deals is a response by fast-food operators to the economic concerns of consumers,” said Maria Vanifatova, Meaningful Vision’s chief executive.

Chloe Mackean, business engagement manager at the Food Foundation, a charity that works on food policy, said: “While we acknowledge that the mains that some of the fast-food chains offer as part of their deal are lower calorie options, the lunch becomes unhealthier when eaten alongside a sugary drink and crisps, chips or cookies. If fast-food chains are serious about delivering meaningful improvements on health, as their recently published nutrition strategies state, they need to make sure healthy options are included as part of their meal deals.”

The government has been criticised for pushing back a pre-watershed ban on junk food advertising until 2025. Proponents hope it will help tackle the UK’s obesity and overweight levels, which are among the highest in Europe. The Scottish government is consulting on a restriction on meal deals that include food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS).

Related: Like cigarettes, junk food should come with a warning: ‘Can kill’ | Martha Gill

“Advertising works,” said Bernhardt. “We urge the government to implement the watershed on TV and online in full, and propose restrictions to all other advertising sites so we can take unhealthy food out of the spotlight for everyone.”

KFC said: “We’re committed to providing choice and healthy balanced meals alongside great value. We’ve introduced under-500 calorie options, which are proving popular … We have made nutritional improvements including reformulating our fries, removing full-sugar Pepsi from all our restaurants, improving the variety and nutritional content of our sides, and making nutritional content available to all customers. There’s more we can do, which is why by 2025 we want 70% of our menu to be non-HFSS [high in fat, salt and sugar] items.”

Domino’s said: “Domino’s is proud to offer its customers great value, especially at a time when they are feeling pressure on their budgets. Our £4 lunch has proved hugely popular with hard-pressed consumers, offering options with “fewer calories than many high-street sandwiches and other lunch alternatives”.