Political Print: the great fat fight is back on

Experts are again clashing over healthy diets in a bout that’s set to be long and bloody. By Nick Hughes.

Ding ding! That was the sound of the bell ringing for the latest round in the great fat fight.

Last year Footprint reported the bitter split in the public health community over the role of fat in the diet. And the gloves are off again after the government’s independent Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) ratified official advice from 1994 that saturated fat intake should be no more than 10% of total calories.

The committee found that, far from fat suffering a miscarriage of justice, new evidence strengthened the original conclusion of its predecessor, the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA), that overconsumption of saturated fats leads to preventable illness and premature death. Public Health England (PHE) responded by recommending that saturated fats in the diet should be substituted with unsaturated fats from foods such as fish, unsalted nuts, seeds and avocado.

Pro-fat campaigners immediately came out swinging in protest at the SACN’s findings, which will now go out to consultation. Dr Aseem Malhotra, the high-profile cardiologist who has become a figurehead for the pro-fat, anti-carbs movement, told the Grocer that the findings were “ridiculous” and accused the committee of “incompetence”.

Leaving aside the unseemly row, the main question businesses will be asking is: what are the implications for health policy?

Later this year the SACN will publish its final report and make recommendations to the government. Around the same time, PHE is due to revise its childhood obesity plan. Fresh targets for reformulation of processed foods to reduce fat content – work that began almost a decade ago under the direction of the Food Standards Agency – seem certain to be back on the agenda, as hinted at by PHE in the original obesity plan.

That would mean the food industry faces having to reformulate on four fronts should rumours that salt is back on PHE’s radar turn out to have substance. Salt reduction has been a significant UK public health success story. The Food & Drink Federation recently reported that its members have reduced salt content by 11.4% in the past five years, building on more than 15 years of reformulation work. But the latest targets expired in 2017 and PHE is said to be concerned about progress stalling in the out-of-home sector, where sugar reduction efforts have diverted attention.

PHE is already drowning under an unexpectedly large volume of sugar reduction data which has delayed the publication of year-one progress by two months. And its latest campaign to chivvy the food industry into cutting calories in family foods by 20% over the next five years will create more work for the agency, not to mention for businesses.

None of these issues, however, will prove as divisive as a campaign to reduce saturated fat. PHE, as well as food operators, should brace itself for more battles ahead.

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