The great obesity debate: Is further policy on the cards?

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

With obesity levels continuing to rise, pressure is mounting for policy action
With obesity levels continuing to rise, pressure is mounting for policy action

Related tags: Food, Fdf, Uk

Rising obesity levels are one of the most significant public health issues facing the world today. As concern mounts, could we see further policy action from UK regulators?

By the time children leave primary school in the UK, one in three of them will be overweight or obese.

This statistic was front-of-mind for many as the All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood met at the Palace of Westminster yesterday evening (20 March).

Baroness Floella Benjamin, vice chair of the group, stressed there is growing determination for solutions to be found.

“Momentum is building,”​ Baroness Benjamin suggested. “When this [group] started, almost every single supermarket group contacted us,”​ she recalled.

But praise for the engagement levels of the industry was short-lived: it did not go un-noticed that no representatives of the food sector were in attendance.

“We asked them but they did not come,”​ the Baroness explained. “We need to get them here.”

Complex issue

The obesogenic triggers in our diets are complex.

The modern food environment clashes with our physiological needs – and this is situation has been decades in the making. The 1950s and 1960s saw a revolution in edible oil production that resulted in high yield oilseeds delivering cheap vegetable oils. Drinks with added sugars have become a mainstay of many western diets.

But the issue goes beyond fizzy drinks and fried food.

Industrialised animal husbandry has contributed to a shift towards animal-based foods and a move away from legumes, wholegrains and vegetables. Last week, researchers at Ghent University released a study of the economic impacts of animal-based protein consumption. They suggested that if just 10% of the population would put more emphasis on plant-based protein sources, it would save the UK government £5.21bn in healthcare and societal costs such as absenteeism.

We are also eating more heavily processed foods. Research from the University of Sao Paulo – out last month – looked at data from 19 European countries. The study reaffirmed a direct correlation between the household availability of processed food and obesity rates across the board. It found that the UK has the highest consumption rate of ultra-processed foods. We also have the highest obesity level.

Progress is being made

The good news is some headway can be reported.

Reformulation and reduced portion sizes have yielded results. According to data from the Food and Drink Federation, its members have reduced energy in the average shopping basket by 5.5% and sugars by 12.1% over the past 5 years. During the lifetime of the latest salt targets, from 2012 to 2017, FDF members have reduced salt by a further 11.4%.

This has been achieved despite some significant barriers to reformulation. Sugars, for instance, are important for bulking and texture. If you replace sugar with a sweetener you have to add other ingredients that fill these roles – and frequently sweeteners will have a bitter aftertaste that also requires masking. It is expensive, takes time, and requires extensive testing.

With demand for clean labels growing, there is no golden bullet.

A spokesperson for the FDF told FoodNavigator: “Reformulation is not simple and cannot happen overnight. Companies are working hard to overcome technical challenges and make gradual tweaks to favourite foods that regular customers can accept.

“There is a limit to what companies can do without the taste of the product changing. Our members make some of the countries’ most historic and loved brands; successful reformulation that is accepted by consumers takes time and effort.”

As the FDF points out, the consumer is at the centre of all this. The food industry can’t force reformulation down people’s throats. Shoppers will vote with their feet.

Pressure for policy mounting

But a gradualist approach does not solve the problem today. Pressure is mounting for action that delivers faster results.

Claiming that the sugar levy has pushed soft drink manufacturers into accelerating the pace of reformulation, regulators are now turning their attention to what other levers can be pulled.

Public Health England’s recent switch to focus on overall calorie intake is a sensible step – and one that has been welcomed by the industry. News that they will be increasing their emphasis on adult education under the One You umbrella this March is another positive.

Unconfirmed gossip also points to the possibility that the UK government could be ready to pull the trigger on its obesity strategy mark two. The existence of any such policy is yet to be confirmed.

Restrictions on food marketing – particularly adverts that run alongside family entertainment shows – would appear to be a possible next step. Indeed, there are some very important questions to be asked around the role that marketing plays in informing our food choices.

Research suggests that food cues have more sway over food choices than health warnings. Psychologists at the University of the pull factor of every kind of stimuli – from marketing and branded to the sight or smell of food – was found to overpower health concerns.

But, as Baroness Benjamin noted, any move to restrict marketing could have unintended consequences. Limitations on the advertising of junk food during children’s programming prompted many in the industry to cut back on how much they invest in children’s TV, she observed.

For its part, the food sector is opposed to further marketing restrictions.

“The UK already has some of the tightest restrictions on advertising to children in the world. These were further tightened last year when the industry voluntarily extended restrictions that already applied to television to all non-broadcast channels too,”​ the FDF spokesperson highlighted.

“Advertising allows brands to communicate product features - and innovations - to consumers and to build up relationships of trust; it is an essential commercial freedom.”

It still isn’t clear how UK policymakers will move to tackle obesity. But what is clear is that further action seems likely.

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