We’re stepping up the war on obesity

With sugar reduction a work in progress and the OECD painting a grim picture of British health, Footprint is launching a new platform to help foodservice do more. By Nick Hughes.

The shocking statistics came thick and fast: Britain is the most obese nation in western Europe.

Obesity rates have almost doubled since 1990 and are rising faster than any other developed nation.

Almost two-thirds (63%) of UK adults are overweight or obese.

For a country that purports to have “the most ambitious obesity plan in the world”, the OECD data released this month suggests the plan isn’t nearly ambitious enough.

Which brings us neatly onto the subject of sugar. At the heart of Public Health England’s childhood obesity plan for England is a programme to remove 20% of sugar from the products children eat most by 2020.

In March next year, PHE will publish the first assessment of the success of food businesses in taking sugar out of their products. But for those who couldn’t bear to wait that long, this month’s Sugar Reduction Summit in London provided a sneak preview of the progress made to date.

The picture is decidedly mixed. Cathy Capelin from Kantar Worldpanel shared data which showed a 2.1% reduction in the volume of sugar purchased in the take-home market over the past five years in the context of a 4.4% increase in total food purchased.

This can partly be explained by a long-term decline in sales of table sugar along with a shift to low-calorie soft drinks. The headline data, however, masked some challenges and potential unintended consequences of the drive to reduce sugar consumption. While sodium is also falling (-3.1%) the volume of saturates in take-home food has actually increased by 2.7% during the past five years, including a shift in the past year from sugar (-0.5%) to saturates (1.1%).

Total sugar consumption also remains too high, with the average Brit eating 20g more than the recommended daily intake of 90g.

Capelin noted that while some categories, such as yoghurts, have made good progress towards their sugar reduction target of 5% in year one, others such as chocolate, biscuits and breakfast cereals are struggling. Manufacturers are finding it technically difficult to recreate the taste, stability and shelf-life of certain products despite innovations in sweetness and sweeteners.

There is also a challenge with measuring sugar reduction in the foodservice sector. Capelin admitted that it was not clear from Kantar’s data to what extent, if at all, less sugar was being purchased in the out-of-home environment.

PHE has previously expressed its frustration at a lack of cooperation from foodservice companies in supplying data to help create a baseline for sugar reduction, although it is understood that a research company has since been drafted in to help with data collection before March’s first batch of results.

This month PHE hosted a roundtable of industry representatives to discuss how the results will be presented. It has previously said that it does not intend to name and shame laggards. However, Footprint understands that PHE is considering an approach that lists the bestselling products in each category and shows the reduction, or otherwise, in sugar content achieved by each.

This is likely to engender some nervousness among pockets of the industry. However, a similar “league table” approach has been successful in reducing levels of campylobacter in supermarket chicken.

March’s data should also tell us much about the extent to which foodservice companies are engaging with the sugar reduction programme. The out-of-home sector has been characterised by factions of the food industry as contributing little to the obesity agenda, a characterisation that ignores a lot of good work that is taking place.

In the awards that followed the Sugar Reduction Summit, Subway was recognised for taking measures “to reduce sugars in food and drink or reduce exposure to sugars through a range of innovative initiatives”, which include reducing calories consumed from drinks sold in Subway stores by 30% in 2017. Businesses will be hoping the first batch of PHE data offers further evidence that broadsides against the sector have been misdirected.

Yet obesity is about more than one nutrient. Tomorrow, Footprint will launch a new platform at Food Matters Live where industry, NGOs, media and government will come together to amplify and accelerate the good work the foodservice sector is already doing to improve public health.

The war against obesity won’t be won overnight; but time is running out to show the kind of big ambition and bold collaboration needed to start turning the tide.

More immediately, foodservice must show that it will no longer tolerate being portrayed as the “dog that didn’t bark” in the obesity debate.

The Public Health Responsibility Conference will take place at Food Matters Live on Tuesday 21st November from 2-6pm. Further information is available via the Footprint website.

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