Slim chance of cracking obesity unless together

COLLABORATIVE approach is best way, writes Colette Backwell

Collaboration is the best way of cracking obesity. Picture: PA

Obesity is one of the biggest challenges facing public health in the UK, if not the biggest and Britain’s food and drink producers are absolutely committed to playing their part in tackling this.

Many people today are regularly consuming more calories than they need, and the poor health outcomes from this are exasperated by people eating too little fruit, vegetables and fibre, and too much saturated fat, sugars and salt. Well over a third of adults are also failing to meet the recommended two and a half hours of moderate intensity activity per week (or 75 minutes of vigorous activity). The number is much lower in children aged 5-15, with only one in five boys and even fewer girls getting the recommended hour of moderately intensive physical activity each day.

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Through the Obesity Action Plan and Supporting Healthy Choices in Scotland and the Public Health Responsibility Deal in England, the food industry has collaborated with others to take a targeted approach on health. To help tackle obesity, responsible companies have responded to calls from government to reduce calories in food and drink. More recently, there has been a growing call to focus on sugar reduction in particular free sugars, added by manufacturers, cook or consumers, and honey and unsweetened fruit juice.

Many companies have reduced calories in their products, in some cases reducing sugars where this achieves a calorie reduction. When producers take an ingredient out of a food or drink they must replace it with one or more ingredients to deliver the same texture, taste, and shelf-life people want and expect. Swapping sugars with other ingredients, which have fewer, the same, or more calories per gram will not always result in a reduction in calories.

Significant reductions have been achieved, such as the 7-8 per cent reduction in calories and sugars respectively in soft drinks delivered by companies over the past three years. In Scotland, 50 smaller food companies were helped to reduce calories, salt and saturates in their products via SFDF’s Reformulation programme, funded by the Scottish Government.

Food and Drink Federation (FDF) members’ 250 kcal cap on individually wrapped, single-serve confectionery items sold in retail will result in calorie reductions of 10-15 per cent in products when completed in spring 2016. Since 2010, billions of individually wrapped, single-serve products have been reformulated and/or reduced in size to bring their calorie content to less than 250kcal.

Through the use of low calorie sweeteners, significant reformulations have been made in carbonated beverages, dairy desserts and yoghurt, confectionery and table-top sweeteners. Companies have also invested in consumer education, offered new products lower in calories and smaller portion sizes, and shifted marketing spend towards low and zero calorie options.

UK food and drink manufacturers have, for over a decade, voluntarily provided nutrition and ingredient information on-pack to inform customers about what they are buying. The industry has also been working with health professionals to help with food labelling. Ultimately, food and drink companies are guided by their customers and the best available scientific advice, as their track record on health shows. Too much salt and saturated fat in the diet is bad for health. That’s why companies have made real strides in reducing these in their products while ensuring they remain pleasurable and of a high quality. This has helped lower population salt intakes by 15 per cent in recent years. Looking at artificial trans-fats, robust science showed that they should be taken out of products altogether, and so they have been.

The many causes of overweight and obesity, including but not limited to diet, are well known. A collaborative approach is needed to address these factors and to drive long-term, positive change.

• Dr Colette Backwell, director, the Scottish Food and Drink Federation.