Playing poker with calories

The food industry has much to gain by embracing the government’s latest calorie challenge. But reticence will inevitably lead to regulation, writes David Read.

"Britain needs to go on a diet,” said Duncan Selbie, chief executive at Public Health England (PHE). "The simple truth is that on average we need to eat less. Children and adults routinely eat too many calories and it's why so many are overweight or obese.”

Under its new “one you” campaign, launched on March 6th, consumers are being encouraged to stick to 400 calories at breakfast, and 600 calories for both lunch and dinner. The food industry has also been given five years to cut calories in family foods by 20%, and has told caterers and manufacturers that they can reformulate products, reduce portion size or encourage customers to buy lower calorie options.

Though pre-occupied by Brexit, the government has been forced to acknowledge that it can no longer ignore the huge strain that obesity will put on the nation’s finances in years to come (if the 20% target is met within five years, more than 35,000 premature deaths could be prevented and around £9 billion in NHS healthcare and social care costs could be saved over a 25-year period, according to PHE).

In the past the enemies have been fat, sugar and salt. This latest move, however, recognises that, for most of us, it’s simply a case of us eating too much.

That’s why looking through PHE’s plan you’ll find more carrots than sticks as the agency seeks to collaborate with industry. Manufacturers, restaurants, QSR and delivery companies will all be asked to develop category guidelines ready for publication a year from now.

But once these guidelines are out, failure to adopt them will almost certainly lead to PHE reaching for the sticks. The reluctance of some in the foodservice sector to come to the table in the past was noted; and I’m sure that poor performance this time around will result in legislation and enforcement. You can’t argue that industry hasn’t had enough chances with voluntary deals.

I think there are plenty of pointers that foodservice and supermarket ready-meals will be at the heart of this initiative – particularly pizza, burgers, sandwiches and fried chicken. For “one you” to work PHE has to get consumers interested in food with fewer calories, and that means caterers providing healthy and attractive choices.

The link between poverty and diet must not be forgotten, either. It’s no surprise that Rotherham has the highest proportion of overweight and obese people in the UK, and that London has the least fat people in the country. The use of QSR by children is also increasing, with over-consumption of calories often as much as 500 calories a day.

Wherever there is change there is both risk and opportunity. The cigarette industry suffered beyond all recognition when the links to cancer and heart disease from smoking were proven, but only after legislation fundamentally altered the marketplace by trebling the cost of their products. We carry similar risks right now if the government were to legislate to restrict calories, fat, or sugar.

Our opportunity is to grab the agenda; to focus on calorie reduction across the board and create innovative ways to deliver better, tastier and more attractive products with fewer calories. Do this and we create a healthier consumers who live longer and become brand loyal. And there are great innovators out there – Leon, itsu, Pure, Abokado, and Tossed are just a handful of those changing the food landscape. With a little imagination we could even create a new “healthy QSR” sector in the years ahead as consumers latch on to this “400-600-600” calories message. Ultimately, we need to stop playing poker with calories.

Our future needs to lie in a market free from regulation, providing products that help our consumers live more active, longer and healthier lives. As always, it’s up to us. Take this opportunity and we will avoid the legislator’s pen.

David Read is chairman at Prestige Purchasing.

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