Stephen Jardine: Tide has turned in healthy eating debate

A.G Barr is reducing the sugar level in IRN-BRU
A.G Barr is reducing the sugar level in IRN-BRU
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Looking back, Wednesday might turn out to be a landmark day in the 20 year struggle to make Scotland a healthier nation.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond used the budget to confirm the introduction of a sugar tax next year. The measure is designed to slash our consumption of sweet, fizzy drinks and could add 8p to a can of Coke or Irn Bru. But a bigger bombshell was being dropped here in Scotland. Food Standards Scotland (FSS) unveiled a raft of recommendations to tackle the nation’s growing obesity crisis head-on. The measures are designed to be some of the most far reaching we’ve seen.

Pressure on food manufacturers has brought change. Just this week Nestle announced the sugar content in confectionary including KitKats and Yorkies will be cut by 10 per cent. However FSS Chairman Ross Finnie says the progress isn’t fast enough. “Given we’ve been missing our dietary goals in Scotland since these were first set more than 20 years ago, it’s clear that moves towards improving Scotland’s diet need to be more rapid, more robust and more effective,’ he said. What’s proposed are a raft of measures ranging from calorie labelling to encouraging smaller portion sizes and promoting healthy options when we eat out. But FSS made clear, nothing is off limits, from restricting advertising to controlling licensing of food outlets around schools.

The main focus is on what we eat when we are away from home. New research shows 61 per cent of Scots say they know they need to eat more healthily, up 10 per cent in just a year. Improvements are taking place at home but they are derailed when we eat out. Given the scale of the problem, the report doesn’t pull any punches. It says “the political landscape has shifted significantly... in the direction of increased willingness for significant and tangible change to improve dietary health”. In other words, the politicians accept regulation is now essential.

FSS believes the law should be used to outlaw certain unhealthy food promotions. But more than that, it believes there is “potential for regulation in relation to retail and out of home portion size”. In other words, the one metre pizza sold in my local takeaway could one day be against the law. That might sound draconian but the alternative is more worrying. Revised estimates now suggest 40 per cent of Scots will be obese by 2030 unless things change. Our weight problem already costs the nation £2.37 billion a year but FSS warns obesity is now becoming a risk to the economic life of the nation.

Perhaps most striking is the approach they are proposing when it comes to using the law to change behavior. Politicians are always wary about anything that risks them being accused of Big Brother tactics. However FSS says the entire argument has shifted. Instead of having to justify why legislation is required the food watchdog says the obesity crisis is so bad “the case must now be to justify not regulating”.

We are still a long way from solving the problem but something changed this week. Those who fuel our obesity crisis are on the back foot. The tide has turned.