No more excuses on obesity

Think of it like your in-laws: it’s flawed, but the Childhood Obesity Strategy is what we’ve got, and it’s time for foodservice to start getting on with it. That was the conclusion of October’s Footprint Forum: Fat Load of Good?: Foodservice and the Childhood Obesity Strategy, in association with CH&Co Group.

The Childhood Obesity Plan might have been widely panned for being a watered-down version of Public Health England’s (PHE) original recommendations. But the forum concluded that it does have value in bringing the industry together in a shared framework. And it isn’t an option to do nothing. PHE has heard too much about the problems – now it wants solutions. The Department of Health has therefore created a flexible framework to allow foodservice to innovate and develop its own own solutions, explained audience member Jo Newstead from the Department of Health. The alternative, she suggested, was a potentially weaker, one-size-fits-all approach. The government’s new action plan is a first step, but there will be more to come on overall calorie intake and promotions, for instance. And if businesses are slow to start, the carrot offered now could quickly morph into the stick many others (including retailers) wanted already.

Whose responsibility?

Today, nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese. Young people are becoming obese earlier, and obesity can be a death sentence – it doubles the risk of dying prematurely, the audience at October’s forum heard. It’s also hugely expensive, costing more than the police, fire and judicial services combined. In fact, a McKinsey & Company study estimated that it costs the UK nearly £47 billion a year. Obesity is a serious economic, social and ethical issue, but is it foodservice’s responsibility? Given that Brits now eat one in six meals and get a quarter of their calories outside the home, the answer has to be yes.

While many of the reductions are likely to come from reformulating products and menus or smaller portions, the most interesting and potentially farreaching health benefits could come from shifting consumer preferences. “If we can shift people willingly away from high sugar products to lower sugar ones that are equally profitable, it’s a win-win situation for industry and the consumer, and nobody suffers,” explained the nutritionist and broadcaster Amanda Ursell. Social norms can also be hugely powerful in this area, added Caroline Fry, the deputy chief executive of CH&Co Group. In one trial, the caterer increased consumers’ uptake of vegetables by 7%, simply by putting out posters and table talkers telling customers that most people took a vegetable with their meal. Plate sizing, and other components of the food environment can also be hugely influential and often inexpensive ways to shift consumers to eat more healthily. But these are often overlooked by foodservice. A forthcoming Footprint Intelligence report will therefore set out a blueprint for how industry can use the psychology of behaviour change and the food environment to encourage healthier eating to stimulate more action in this area.

Can good news sell papers?

There is also a feeling that industry needs to bring the media onside, focusing on efforts to improve public health rather than screaming “ripoff” or “nanny state” every time a portion size is reduced or a product reformulated. When portion sizes are reduced price doesn’t automatically fall too, with the cost of ingredients often dwarfed by costs in production, packaging and distribution.

Controversial, surprising and counterintuitive stories sell, Ursell said. So find the positive health angles that surprise and generate interest and communicate them. That’s often easier said than done, but it is certainly not impossible – look at the positive headlines drummed up by retailers selling ugly fruit, for example. The Childhood Obesity Plan has received plenty of flak. But even if companies achieve the sugar reductions it calls for, existing policy means they won’t be able to shout about it, explained speaker Jenny Pfleger, a regulatory consultant at Leatherhead Food Research. This is because only reductions that reach 30% can be advertised. Policy change in this type of area is important to ensure industry efforts can be rewarded.

Think sugar but think bigger

With a single 330ml can of drink able to exceed a child’s daily limit of five to six cubes of sugar, and 11- to 18-year-olds consuming 40% of their calories from sugar, mainly in the form of soft drinks, it’s understandable why the new plan has such a sweet focus. But to really tackle the problems the scope needs to be much wider. “As a nutritionist, I see things come and go,” said Ursell. “But we must think of our food in a much more holistic way and sugar is part of that.”

However, the approaches taken must be handled carefully or creativity could be stifled, argued Fry. “We have a big responsibility as a food provider to inform and advise our customers when we are feeding people several times a week. We could spend a lot of time and money on nutritional analysis – but is it not better to give chefs greater knowledge of how to make food healthier?” she asked. “Nutritional analysis only works in highly controlled scenarios such as factory production; as soon as you add in variables such as self-service to the mix, the analysis becomes irrelevant. Through buying the best products and producing food in the right ways, we can create the healthiest food offers possible. We also don’t want to exclude people – so if someone wants chips and lasagne, let’s make it the healthiest possible.” This is why ensuring chefs have nutritional training is key. A recent Footprint Intelligence report found that nutritional training is not mandatory on catering syllabuses, highlighting the need for industry to sponsor pilot modules and to educate their working chefs internally.

Attack it from all angles

Eretia O’Kennedy, the head of nutrition at the Jamie Oliver Group, shared the challenges of trying to create food that meets people’s expectations when they are going out for a treat while also helping people to eat healthily. The solution for Jamie’s Italian has been to provide calorie information online, set strict nutritional criteria for 30% of the menu, reduce the sugar in desserts and use strict nutritional guidelines for children’s meals. Not everything has gone smoothly. Following advice from the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign, calorie information was added to children’s menus, allowing parents to make informed choices for their offspring. However, some parents said they didn’t want their children to see the calorie information so the chain is now looking at what to do next. With Kantar Worldpanel research showing that 40% of food is bought on promotion, it surprised many that the Obesity Plan didn’t include PHE’s original recommendations to reduce and rebalance the number and type of price promotions in retail and foodservice. But with clients such as supermarkets and foodservice changing their attitude, a responsible approach to promotions and product formulation will become a “point of difference and a competitive driver” argued panellist Julian Hunt, the head of public affairs and communications for Coca Cola Enterprises. “If companies aren’t looking at reformulation, promotions, food provision and the choices that they offer, two things will happen: first, you will fall behind your consumers and second you will come under a lot of scrutiny from civil society,” he said. All eyes are now on how the industry – perhaps especially those in foodservice – react to the government’s new policy. Action needs to be swift, effective and positive, because the critics will be waiting for any opportunity to force the government into (another) rethink.

Amy Fetzer is head of research and analysis at the Footprint Media Group.

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