Nutritionists, food suppliers, caterers and advertisers gathered at the latest Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum to discuss the next steps for policy on high fat, sugar and salt foods regulation, reports Morag Wilson
If you didn’t think childhood obesity was a worsening problem then take a look at the latest data from the Child Measurement Programme. For some years we have been repeating the statistic that one in five children start school overweight or obese and a third leave primary school overweight or obese. This year though, that number has risen to one in four children who are starting school in this condition and that can have severe consequences to their health.
The government’s Childhood Obesity Plan was a disappointment to many for not going far enough and these latest statistics certainly support that worry. With sugar the new demon of the food industry, how can the food and drink sector improve health across the board by tackling salt, fat and calories too, and what role can the school catering industry play?
Speaking at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum on ‘Next steps for policy on high fat, sugar and salt foods – regulation, innovation and engaging consumers’ last month, Dr Alison Tedstone, deputy director and chief nutritionist, diet and obesity, health improvement at Public Health England (PHE), gave the stark warning: “If you are an overweight child, an obese child, it is very hard to then become a lean adult, as an obese adult you are facing serious health risks which are bearing down on our economy. Obesity is costing every single one of us money in our taxes, this is beyond a personal choice issue.”
It was PHE’s recommendations on reducing sugar that led to the government producing the Childhood Obesity Plan in August 2016. While manufacturers are busy working on the legislation set out as a result of the plan, namely sugar reformulation of a vast range of food products and preparing for the forthcoming levy on sugary drinks, PHE has most recently highlighted its plans to combat calorie reduction next.
But much of the debate at the Westminster Forum was around how much food products should be reformulated and how much should be down to the education of consumers to make healthy choices. Tedstone would argue a combination, but a strong emphasis on the former, as shown by the successful reduction in the nation’s salt intake.
“Public Health England concluded [in its report] that in order to reduce sugar intakes you need to go past just providing people with information. We need to step beyond that to think about the drivers in our society that are driving us to consume more than we need and resulting in obesity.
“We have learnt through the salt reduction programme if you just focus on a few healthy options that’s not going to change anything.”
Tedstone praised the move by Kellogg’s to take 40% of sugar out of Coco Pops and announced that in March, PHE will publish a progress report into sugar reduction that will name products for the first time. It will then produce monitoring reports every 12 months.
It’s not the only update that the industry will be getting this year. Maggie Throup MP, chair of All-Party Group on Obesity, who chaired the morning event, confirmed that the Health Select Committee in which she sits will be readdressing the Childhood Obesity Plan over the coming months and try to influence the government to go even further in its action.
The argument for reformulation
Speakers at the Westminster Forum provided mounting evidence that reformulation was the only real way to make a significant impact on the nation’s health. Jon Woolven, strategy and innovation director at IGD, cited one of its surveys which found that 77% of consumers said they are happy if food companies change recipes provided that products taste just as good.
“There’s no easier way than reformulating products so that people don’t have to make any changes in order to improve their diets,” said Woolven.
If children are to continue to purchase sugary drinks then perhaps reformulation could change the statistic that among 11-18 year olds, 57% of non-milk extrinsic sugars in the diet comes from sugary drinks.
“At the end of the day, high fat, sugar, salt foods remain readily available, highly promoted and often, quite low cost,” said Sara Stanner, science director at the British Nutrition Foundation.
Stanner highlighted some of the work that schools and nurseries are doing to reduce childhood obesity. The revised menus for early years settings have been published for instance, although the healthy rating scheme for primary schools is still yet to make an appearance.
Some schools are doing brilliantly at teaching children about making healthier food choices and using the revised Eatwell Guide, she said. One such school is Charlton Manor Primary School and headteacher Tim Baker was at the event to guide delegates through how his pupils learn across the curriculum through food.
“What we find at Charlton Manor is the more we expose children to these different flavours and tastes, they love them the more they get used to them,” he said.
But many schools are lacking in this area because of a lack of time, resources and support, as discovered in the Food Education Learning Landscape report from the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. To help, the BNF is launching a free online training course for primary school teachers this year and it has been working on key performance indicators for food education in schools.
While Stanner said that reformulation will be “central” to improving childhood obesity, she stated: “We think it’s important to bring consumers on the journey and we certainly think it’s really important to teach people about how to make healthier food choices. To do that we would really like to see minimum food education standards in schools and a lot more Continuing Professional Development and support for teachers.”
Other speakers at the event talked about the work they are doing around improving children’s diets. Dr Katie Cuming, consultant in public health medicine for Brighton and Hove City Council, talked about how the Sugar Smart programme is helping to take action on sugar, including examining the location of takeaways near schools, primary school assemblies on sugar and a healthy choice award for school breakfast clubs.
Sue Howlett, technical manager at school caterer WSH, meanwhile, spoke about the work they are doing with their suppliers on sourcing reduced fat, salt and sugar products and Tedstone emphasised the importance for all schools to comply with the school food standards.
Sugar is the first target of the Childhood Obesity Plan and the industry’s efforts to reverse these latest Child Measurement Programme statistics. But sugary products only account for 25% of the calories we are consuming. “It’s very important to go beyond sugar,” said Tedstone.
Now that’s off the ground, PHE is taking on the calories. An announcement around this is expected soon, with detailed guidelines and a possible cap on calories as early as the end of the year.
As for salt? That’s not going away either. PHE will publish an assessment of how industry is doing against current salt targets in the middle of this year.
Consumers need choice, yes. But education will take time to turn people’s behaviours so PHE is driving a hard line on reversing an obesity epidemic fast.