UK motorway service stations offer a “shocking unhealthy” diet that could potentially increase the risk of dangerous driving on some occasions, with just one store found to provide fresh food for every six fast food outlets, a new study has found.
Some 35 per cent of service stations don’t have a single fresh food retailer while 98.5 per cent have fast food offerings according to the report, which assessed 127 of the UK’s estimated 158 service station areas. The top three fast food outlets listed were Costa, Burger King and Greggs.
The report found just three retail brands selling fresh produce operating across the network – amounting to a total of 81 M&S Food, Spar and Waitrose outlets, along with eight farm shop, cheese, fish and deli counters. This compared to 37 fast-food chains that had a total of 526 outlets.
“We expected the speed and convenience of fast food restaurants to dominate the services’ offerings, but we were quite shocked to find the sparseness of outlets offering fresh produce and ingredients to passing shoppers at motorway services,” said Adam Summersby, of Towergate Insurance, the caravan and insurance company that produced the report.
“For road travellers of all kinds, seeking fresh, healthy food to eat straight away or take away and cook, that isn’t pre-prepared or a takeaway, the options are very sparse,” he said.
“With staycations on the rise over the last few years – both pandemic and cost-of-living induced – there are more of us taking to Britain’s roads for our weekend and holidays instead. But should travelling and food on-the-go have to resort to a fast food pick-up?” Mr Summersby asks.
There are some notable exceptions, however, to the general lack of fresh, unprocessed foods, with a handful of motorway service stations offering excellent produce, Mr Summersby said.
The report reveals the top 10 motorway facilities, finding the Gloucester Services Farmshop & Kitchen on the M5 just south of Gloucester to have the best offering of fresh food to eat on the spot or take away and cook.
The site has a Farm Shop, Butchers Counter, Cheese Counter, Deli Counter, Fish Counter, and has zero fast food dining chains.
Tebay Services Farmshop & Kitchen, a family-owned operation on the M6 just north of Tebay village in Cumbria, comes in second, with a Farm Shop, Butchers Counter Cheese Counter and no fast food chains.
Both motorway service areas were set up by Cumbrian hill farmers John and Barbara Dunning as part of the Westmorland group, with Tebay opening in 1972 and the Gloucester branch in 2014.
The family still runs them, along with the family sheep farm in Cumbria, today.
Fleet services, based on the M3 near Basingstoke in Hampshire, comes in third offering both a Little Waitrose and normal Waitrose store.
Sadie Lane, Towergate Insurance’s Safedrive Operations Manager, who advises drivers of everything from cars to HGVs on how to drive safely, said: “Studies have shown your body’s digestive system needs to work overtime to process unhealthy foods, which reduces the oxygen levels to your brain.
“This can affect your ability to concentrate and cause you to feel tired – which not only makes driving more laborious, but could also increase your chances of dangerous driving.”
The UK’s 10 best motorway service stops for fresh, healthy food
This Westmorland-owned services on the M5 offers visitors a Farm Shop, Butchers Counter, Cheese Counter, Deli Counter, Fish Counter, and has zero fast food dining chains at all.
This Cumbria-based service station on the M6 – also Westmorland-owned – offers a Farm Shop, Butchers Counter, and Cheese Counter. And again, zero fast food chains.
Based on the M3 in Hampshire, Fleet services has both a Little Waitrose and normal Waitrose store, bringing fresh variety and self-cooking options for visitors.
This Oxfordshire based station has a Waitrose store on offer for fresh food options.
- Derby with Burton
Owned by Quadrant Estates, this A38/A50 services has a good ratio of fresh food to fast food options.
- Leicester North
Sitting on the A46 in Leicestershire, it offers customers a Waitrose for fresh food, and just two fast food outlets (KFC and Costa).
Another Welcome Break services in the top 10, based in Shropshire on the M54.
- London Gateway
This M1-based services offers a Waitrose fresh food option to healthy shoppers.
- Harsthead Moor (Westbound)
This M62-based services in West Yorkshire boasts a strong ratio of fresh food to fast food options for passing drivers in the north of England.
- Cardiff Gate
The only Welsh-based service station to make the list, with a ratio of one fresh food store (Watroise) to three fast food outlets (Burger King, KFC and Starbucks).
(excludes all processed food and pre-packaged sandwiches)
“Eating a surplus of unhealthy food impacts concentration levels and affects your mood. Swapping refined sugars for natural sugars found in fruit and vegetables will give you that boost of energy you need to keep active,” she said.
Louise payne, Co-chair of the British obesity society, said: “Service stations need to do better to make the healthy choice the easy choice.”
“Frequented mainly by consumers that travel a lot for their job – and who are possibly sedentary and inactive for much of the day – offering a small choice of protein bars or nuts doesn’t quite cut it – particularly when foods high in fat salt and sugar are marketed in a more enticing way,” she said.
“Although many have an M&S or Waitrose, with a range of healthier options, these choices are often more expensive and just overshadowed by other offerings in service stations,” she added.
Douglas Twenefour, Deputy Head of Care at Diabetes UK, said: “It doesn’t matter if it is at a motorway service station or your local shop – having access to a variety of healthier foods will help in creating a healthier environment for all.
“Nearly two thirds of adults are living with overweight or obesity and in turn, increasing their risk for several serious conditions – including type 2 diabetes. This is something that needs to be addressed on every front to help make a meaningful impact to how we live as a society. Making the healthier option the easy option is an easy and important step.”
Victoria Taylor, Senior Dietitian at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet can help to reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure.”
“A Mediterranean style diet – with plenty of fruit and vegetables as well as fish, pulses, nuts and seeds and wholegrains – and less processed meat, sugary drinks and sweet treats offers a balanced approach.”
The study looked at the main motorway services in the UK from this list: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motorway_service_areas_in_the_United_Kingdom#Notes.
Taking into account dual services (north and southbound, or east and westbound), this study analysed the food offerings at a total of 127 service stations.
The researchers used information from up-to-date operator sites (Roadchef, Moto, WelcomeBreak, Extra) and MotorwayServices.uk to extract data on food offerings at each (discounting concessions such as KrispyKreme) to include only those where hot or full meal options could be offered.
From these records, they then ranked each service station on its fresh to fast food ratio, with the more fresh food stores being ranked higher, and fewer fast food options regarded as better.