Government announces 20% calorie reduction target

The food sector has been told to cut calories in their products by 20% by 2024 to help tackle the UK’s obesity crisis.

“It’s hard for people to make healthy food choices, whether for themselves or their families,” said Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England yesterday. “That’s why we are challenging the food industry to take 20% of the calories out of everyday foods, building on their good work on salt and promising announcements on sugar.”

The 20% reduction target follows an analysis of the new calorie consumption data, experience of the ongoing sugar and salt reduction programmes, and more than 20 meetings with the food industry and stakeholders. The focus will be on foods consumed by children but the new targets are expected to encourage adults to eat more healthily too.

New research published by PHE showed that, depending on their age, overweight and obese boys consume between 140 to 500 excess calories every day when compared to those with healthy body weights; for girls it is 160 to 290. Adults consume on average 200 to 300 calories too many each day.

“The simple truth is on average we need to eat less,” said PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie.

The products covered in the new programme include ready meals, pizzas, meat products and meat alternatives, savoury snack products, sauces and dressings, prepared sandwiches, composite salads and other on the go foods including meal deals. Foods in the sugar reduction programme are not covered.

PHE said that taken together, its sugar and calorie reduction programmes plus action to reduce sales of sugary drinks (through the sugary drinks levy), would cover half of children’s overall calorie intakes. The agency will work “behind the scenes with the food industry to slowly improve the calorie and wider nutrient content of everyday foods without families having to proactively make burdensome changes”.

Businesses will be required to take action in three areas: changing recipes, reducing portion sizes and encouraging people to buy lower calorie products. How they achieve the latter is up to them, it appears – there is no suggestion of mandatory calorie labelling on menus, for example.

However, the results of a survey published within PHE’s calorie report this week show that 79% of consumers want calorie labels on menus and 59% want “supersize” offers banned. Hospitals have already begun to ban sales of supersized sugary snacks. Professor Russell Viner from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health said food portions, particularly pizzas and hamburgers, “are simply much bigger than they were in our parent’s time”.

“The availability of fast food at pocket money prices and the advertising of unhealthy food and drink to children add to the problem, as does the lack of nutritional labelling, particularly on out of home products. It is our environment that pushes children to consume too many calories, far more than it is individual choices by families,” he added.

PHE will now set to work with the whole food industry – retailers, manufacturers, major restaurant, café, takeaway, and delivery companies – and health and charity sectors, to develop category guidelines for the reduction programmes. These will be published in mid-2019 and the focus will be on “large businesses that are providing the greatest volume of foods and consequentially calories into the food chain”.

Guidelines will likely be set as sales weighted averages in terms of calories per 100g of product as well as calorie or portion size guidelines for products likely to be consumed by an individual at one time. There may be separate guidelines for the out of home, takeaway and meal delivery sectors. “It may make sense to set guidelines across menus for this sector rather than for specific items but at the same level of ambition to that set for individual product categories,” PHE noted in its report.

The Food and Drink Federation said it was “encouraging” that the focus has been expanded to include out of home. It is no secret that part of the failure of the government’s Responsibility Deal was a lack of engagement on the part of foodservice businesses. There is still room for improvement: PHE noted in its report this week that “there was limited input from the out of home and takeaway sectors particularly in the early days” of the sugar reduction programme. Burger King, Casual Dining Group, Compass, Greggs, McDonald’s, Greene King, Pizza Express and Subway all had meetings with the agency to discuss its calorie targets and proposals.

Graham MacGregor, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar welcomed the potentially “groundbreaking” new programme. However, the 20% calorie reduction targets must be “properly enforced and transparent”, he said. “We also need clear guidance from government on what will happen if the food industry fails to comply, as it is vital that the industry is given a level-playing field and all companies, both retail and out of home, fully co-operate,” he added.

There will be annual reports to highlight progress made by individual businesses and in top selling categories, but PHE hasn’t yet said what will happen if companies are found to be slacking.

The NHS spends around £6 billion a year treating obesity-related conditions. However, 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.

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