UK government calls for lower energy foods

Related tags Food industry Nutrition

UK politicians have called for immediate industry action to counter
the rising numbers of obese in the country, offering food marketers
three years to show significant improvements in product labelling
and formulation, writes Chris Jones.

The new report also recommends the introduction of legislation to effect a 'traffic light' system for labelling foods based on their energy density, according to criteria devised by the Food Standards Agency.

The House of Commons Health Committee's obesity report highlights the 400 per cent increase in obesity in the UK over the last 25 years - leaving three-quarters of the adult British population overweight or obese (and around 22 per cent obese) and putting an increasing strain on the already under pressure National Health Service.

England, in fact, has witnessed the fastest growth in obesity in Europe and childhood obesity has tripled in 20 years, the Committee said, adding that overweight and obesity was costing the nation up to £7.4 billion per year.

Obesity is linked with a wide range of diseases, such as heart disease, diabetes, renal failure, osteoarthritis and psychological damage, while recent research also suggests that obesity can be a major risk factor for cancer.

The Committee cited a combination of too much cheap, energy-dense food and too little exercise as the principal cause of expanding waistlines, and while the government was targeted for not doing enough to promote exercise or the prescription of anti-obesity drugs via the NHS, it was the food industry which bore the brunt of the report's accusations.

"The food industry's relentless targeting of children through intense advertising and promotion campaigns, some of which explicitly aim to circumvent parental control by exploiting 'pester power'"​, was seen as the major cause of the problem by the report's authors.

To counter this, the report recommended an industry-led, voluntary withdrawal of television advertising of unhealthy food to children, together with a review of all forms of food promotion. The food industry should also take active steps to reformulate foods to reduce their energy density, and to introduce healthy pricing strategies to make healthy choices affordable for all, the report suggests.

While the industry has repeatedly warned that 'demonising' certain types of food was a dangerous route down which to proceed, it has also pledged to work with the government to do more to reduce the obesity risk. Taking this on board, the report recommends that the proposed measures be introduced on a voluntary basis at first, but added that "if insufficient action has been taken in three years, the government will need to introduce more direct regulation"​.

Indeed, the report also refuted the claims frequently cited by the food industry that there are no such things as healthy or unhealthy foods, only healthy and unhealthy diets. Instead, it recommended the introduction of legislation to effect a 'traffic light' system for labelling foods, either 'red-high', 'amber-medium' or 'green-low', according to criteria devised by the Food Standards Agency, which should be based on energy density.

The report argues that such a system would make it far easier for consumers to make easy choices, as well as acting as an incentive for the food industry to re-examine the content of food, to see if, for example, fat or sugar levels could be reduced to move a product from the 'high' category into the 'medium' category.

But this recommendation would not improve the nation's health, according to the British Retail Consortium, which represents the country's supermarket industry. "Retailers were very disappointed to see the suggestion that a 'traffic light' labelling system should be introduced based on the energy density of individual foods,"​ said Kevin Hawkins, director general of the BRC.

"Policy should be based on sound science. The 'traffic light' approach leads to artificial segregation of foods by attacking staples of our diet such as meat and dairy products. Such wrong thinking has no scientific underpinning and could lead to serious unforeseen consequences for individuals such as a dangerous fall in their iron or calcium intake. It could also lead to an increase in eating disorders.

"If 'traffic light' labelling were adopted, it could mean some consumers actually become less healthy, as has happened in Sweden where 'traffic lighting' has been the law for some time."

Other groups supported the Committee's suggestions. The Food Commission, for example, urged the food and advertising industries to accept their responsibility for adding to children's bad eating practices.

"The average child sees more than 5,000 advertisements for junk food every year,"​ said Food Commission director Dr Tim Lobstein. "Parents and teachers cannot hope to compete with this barrage of bad messages and corrupting influence. It leads to family friction at meal-times and tearful toddlers in the supermarket."

But the Commission criticised the decision to recommend only voluntary action on the part of the food industry. "The Food Commission wants regulation now in order to protect children's health and to give food companies an urgent incentive to improve the nutritional quality of their products. An advertising ban would also make the marketplace fairer for companies producing healthier food,"​ said Lobstein.

"Voluntary bans will not work. We have seen voluntary marketing codes repeatedly broken by baby milk manufacturers, and some of the same companies, such as Nestlé, are involved. It will take a law to make advertising controls stick."

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