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Footprint Forum Report: Action-stations 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. Amy Fetzer reports on the latest Footprint Forum.

It’s time to focus on the positive and start finding solutions. That was the conclusion of last month’s Footprint Forum: Fat load of good: foodservice and the childhood obesity strategy, in association with CH&Co Group.

Now, the Childhood Obesity Strategy 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 have heard too much about the problems – now it wants solutions.

The line is that the Department of Health has had enough of industry complaints, so it has created a flexible framework to allow us to innovate our own solutions, instead of imposing a potentially weaker, one-size fits all approach, explained audience member Jo Newstead, Department of Health.

The Childhood Obesity Strategy is a first step, but there will be more to come on overall calorie intake, promotions and other elements in the pipeline. And if we don’t act far or fast enough now, the shape that these will take may be more stick than carrot.

Tackling obesity is foodservice’s responsibility

And there is a need to act urgently. The stats around childhood obesity are terrifying. Today, nearly a third of children aged 2 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.

It’s also hugely expensive, costing more than the police, fire and judicial services combined. In fact, a McKinsey and Company study estimated that it costs the UK nearly £47bn a year.

It’s a serious state of affairs but is it foodservices’ responsibility? When you consider that we now eat 1 in 6 meals, and get a quarter of our calories outside of the home, the answer is a resounding yes.

Shifting consumer preferences

Whilst many of the reductions are likely to come from the reformulation of products and menus, or smaller portions, the most interesting and potentially most far-reaching 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,” explained nutritionist and broadcaster Amanda Ursell, “it’s a win-win situation for industry and the consumer, and nobody suffers.”

Social norms can also be hugely powerful in this area, added Caroline Fry, deputy chief executive, CH&Co Group. A study done by the caterer was able to increase consumers’ uptake of vegetables by 7%, just by putting out posters and table talkers that told consumers 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 report will 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.

Think like a newshound

We also need to turn the tide to get the media working with us to focus on the urgent need to improve public health, rather than screaming rip off or nanny state every time a portion size is reduced or a product reformulated. This is important because when portion sizes are reduced, it doesn’t necessarily lead to price reductions because the cost of ingredients is often dwarfed by elements such as production, packaging and distribution.

Controversial, surprising and counterintuitive stories sell, advises Ursell. So find the positive health angles that surprise and generate interest, and communicate them. Then the media can work with us, and not against us.

Policy must keep up

The Childhood Obesity Strategy has received a lot of flak because, even if companies achieve the 5-20% sugar reductions it calls for, existing policy means they won’t be able to shout about it, explained speaker Jenny Pfleger, regulatory consultant, 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-six cubes of sugar, and 11-18 year olds getting 40% of their calories from sugar, mainly in the form of soft drinks, it’s understandable why a watered down Childhood Obesity Strategy had such a sweet focus.

But to really tackle the problems, we must look at food as a whole. “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.”

There is a need to look at meals, daily intake and balanced diets as a whole, agreed panellist Tom Allen, food development director, Sodexo. There is also a need to focus on more plant-based food, not just for health but for environmental reasons too.

Knowledge over limitations

With the stats on obesity so serious, and with industry’s desire for a level playing field, calorie caps, compulsory calorie labelling and reformulating all dishes to be healthier could appear to be potential solutions.

Yet such approaches must be handled carefully or creativity could be stifled in our amazing industry, 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? 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 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, head of nutrition, Jamie Oliver Group, shared the challenges of trying to create food that meets people’s expectations when they are going out for a treat, with 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 deserts and use strict nutritional guidelines for children’s meals. However, not everything has gone smoothly. There was backlash, after, following advice from the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign, calorie information was added to children’s menus. The calorie-labelled menus were intended for adult, and not child, use, but they found their way into the hands of children all the same. Parents complained, so the company is now considering what to do next.

Responsible promotions

With Kantar Worldpanel research showing that 40% of food is bought on promotion, it is galling that the Childhood Obesity Strategy 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, head of public affairs and communications, Coca Cola Enterprises. “If companies aren’t looking at reformulation, promotions, food provision and the choices that they offer, two things will happen. 1) You will fall behind your consumers, 2) you will come under a lot of scrutiny from civil society.”

The debate concluded that it’s time to start framing the debate on obesity differently. Rather than focusing on what’s not possible, it’s time to look at what is possible. This means taking a holistic, balanced meal approach, and working with the media to ensure stories about product renovation and reformulation focus on the health benefits. It also means shifting customer preferences and looking at how we can shape the foodservice environment to promote healthier eating. Because helping consumers to make healthier choices is a challenge we all need to take on.