CONSUMERS ARE confused about what makes them fat so it’s no surprise a third don’t consider health when they’re eating out. That means businesses have to, but is the Responsibility Deal enough to make a difference?
In the past decade sugar consumption has fallen 12%. In that time, the average weight of an English adult has risen by about two kilos. And yet sugar appears to have become the demon ingredient, replacing fat. Meanwhile, cutting salt consumption continues apace in some countries (new research published recently suggests a “chaotic” approach to reformulation among some international foodservice companies with “huge differences” in salt levels around the world within the same products).
Welcome to the complex world of healthy eating. In the past few months there has been little respite as politicians, academics, the media, big business and now the head of the NHS all weigh into the debate. Simon Stevens, the CEO of NHS England, claimed in September that if left unchecked, obesity could bankrupt the health service (see page 5 of November Issue Footprint). Type two diabetes already costs the NHS around £9 billion, according to Diabetes UK.
The World Health Organisation is considering a controversial revision of its recommended guidelines on sugar intake from 10% of daily caloric intake to 5%. Given that there’s more than that in many single-serving chocolate bars the likes of Mars and Mondelez are unimpressed. The Association of Chocolate, Biscuits and Confectionery Industries of Europe says that “this complex matter requires further scientific substantiation.
What the scientific opinion tells us is that there’s not enough scientific evidence to set a level of recommended intake for sugars.”
And herein lies the problem. “Confusion or mixed messages is the bane of my life,” says Tam Fry, a spokesman for the National Obesity Forum. There is a battle brewing not just between health campaigners and big businesses, but between sugar and fat – and it’s anything but sweet.
The big businesses that have a vested interest in our continued “addiction” to junk foods are making similar noises regarding confusion. AB Sugar took the bold step recently of launching a new campaign. Making Sense of Sugar was launched in response to the “heightened attention on sugar” and the “misinformation” the company feels the mainstream media is lapping up far too eagerly.
A focus of the accompanying website will be reformulation in an attempt to put right misconceptions which are “a real problem”, according to AB Sugar’s head of food sciences, Julian Cooper. “People think that reformulation is the answer to a maiden’s prayer,” says Cooper. “However, it’s not a straightforward solution to creating lower- calorie products.”
Reformulation is an area in which manufacturers, retailers and foodservice have all invested. There have been murmurings from manufacturers that they are reaching the limits of what they can do, but caterers see it as a continuing challenge. “There’s plenty of innovation still to come,” says Sodexo’s head of nutrition, Wan Mak.
The sectors also differ in their approach to choice editing – or “health by stealth”. The supermarkets have been notoriously reluctant to offer shoppers fewer options, but Sodexo is one of a number of catering firms that are trying to tackle obesity on all fronts. “We believe in the whole package,” says Mak, referring to both the hard line of choice editing as well as the softer nudge approach involving communication.
A recent study by Mintel revealed that half of diners eat out for a special treat. Convincing them to make it a healthy one isn’t going to be easy. But what about the other half? Takeaways are eaten at least once a week by a third of Brits while 31% eat in a restaurant once a week or more. This casualisation of the market is good news for businesses, but potentially bad news for obesity.
Helena Childe, a senior foodservice analyst at Mintel, says: “Although government initiatives such as the Responsibility Deal are pushing eating-out operators to think more about their healthy eating proposition, there is little widespread demand from consumers themselves, with nearly four in 10 stating that they rarely think about healthy eating concerns when eating out.”
So if consumers aren’t thinking about it, businesses need to. However, a check through the pledges made in the Public Health Responsibility Deal reveals a split within the foodservice sector when it comes to progress on reformulation and the offer of healthier options. Take calories: four of the five companies to have signed up to both the pledges to label calories and reduce them are contract caterers (Aramark, Compass, Dine Contract Catering and Sodexo).
The coalition government has, of course, pinned its hopes on this flagship voluntary deal. Keen to reduce regulation and red tape it entered Downing Street with a desire to work with business rather than against it. The health minister, Jane Ellison, is clearly 100% behind it, and industry loves it too. But is it working?
Judging by the number of business signed up, possibly not. But Mak feels that some of the criticism has been unfair. “People want to see results overnight,” she says, but reducing the waistline of a nation takes time. Fry, on the other hand, believes food companies have had more than enough time. He now wants to see government impose much stricter deadlines, suggesting that firms have had “years and years” to reformulate.
“Jane Ellison needs to sharpen up very quickly indeed,” he says. “Billions are being spent cleaning up the mess the industry is responsible for.” A tax on sugary drinks is “absolutely necessary”, he claims, adding that it’s not an impossible dream for “any food sold in the UK to be as healthy as it could be”.
The new school food policy has tightened up nutrition requirements and there is hope that similar progress will be made in hospitals (see page 5 November Issue Footprint). But this will only scratch the surface, say campaigners. The “good news story” that has seen the food industry help to get a grip on salt intake over the past decade is, it seems, not translating into sugar and fat.
With obesity levels rising and pressure on the NHS at tipping point, the question for this government and whoever is next will be: can it afford to wait another decade?
Footprint has asked a number of experts to suggest policy changes they believe will curb rising levels of obesity. Mel Wakeman, a lecturer in nutrition at Birmingham City University, suggests four ways to cut sugar intake:
1 Lower the labelling thresholds for added sugars. Currently
only products containing at least 22.5% of added sugars are labelled as high-sugar. Products with no more than 5% added sugar are labelled as low. By adjusting thresholds to match current recommendations (free sugar should make up 5% of energy intake) the traffic light system can be used to identify high-sugar foods more effectively. 10% would be the new threshold for high-sugar and 2.5% the maximum for low-sugar.
2 Ban marketing and advertisement of sugary products containing more than 10% added sugar.
3 Food and drink labelling must be more explicit in stating the free sugar and naturally occurring sugar content along with a suitable health warning explaining the risks of excess intake.
4 Energy drinks should be banned for under-16s.