Marks and Spencer Group PLC’s (LON:MKS) and its famous Percy Pig sweets have found themselves in the crosshairs of a new government-commissioned report that accuses UK food sellers of peddling “false virtue” in the branding of certain products, giving a false impression that they are healthy.

The report from the National Food Strategy (NFS), published on Wednesday, said the use of phrases such as “no added sugar” and, in the case of Percy Pig “no artificial colours or artificial flavourings”, were “wilfully misleading” customers.

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“How many parents take the time to check the ingredients list? If they did, they might (assuming they know how ingredient lists work) be agog to find that the three largest ingredients by weight are glucose syrup, sugar and glucose-fructose-syrup”, said Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of food chain Leon and one of the reviewers who compiled the report.

Dimbleby said he was singling out M&S in particular in regard to the practice “not because it is the biggest sinner, but because it is such a well-trusted company”.

“A British institution, M&S has the pledge “we always strive to do the right thing” as one of its guiding principles. If M&S – which is a great deal more scrupulous than many food companies – is guilty of such trickery, you can be sure the practice is ubiquitous”, he said.

“The issue is not just which foods companies should sell, but where and how”, Dimbleby added.

The NFS forms part of a recently unveiled government strategy to tackle the UK’s obesity epidemic, which has been thrown into sharp relief as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

A ban of the advertising of junk food before 9pm is expected to enter into force soon, while the NFS is also proposing the extension of free school meals to another 1.5mln children to help combat the connection between child poverty and a poor diet.

Other proposals reportedly being considered involve voucher schemes to encourage cycling and allowing GPs to prescribe exercise to patients.

The government is also planning to legislate to end the promotion of foods high in fat, sugar or salt by restricting volume promotions such as buy one get one free as well as restricting the placement of such foods in locations intended to encourage purchasing, such as near shop checkouts.

Shares in M&S were flat at 100.3p in mid-afternoon trading on Wednesday.