All in the marketing?

All in the marketing?

The latest Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum had the aim of discussing ways to implement chapter 2 of the government’s plan for childhood obesity. But it failed to address the delivery of meals, writes Morag Wilson

We know that children are heavily influenced by advertising. A report by Cancer Research UK found that young people who recalled seeing junk food adverts every day were more than twice as likely to be obese. It also found that 87% of young people found adverts for high fat, salt and sugar products appealing, with three-quarters tempted to eat a product after seeing such an advert. It was this piece of research that led to London Mayor Sadiq Khan to commit to a ban on junk food advertising across the Transport for London network, which will come into force from February.

But is this – and the government’s ongoing programme of reformulation – the only answer? Surely there are things that retailers and caterers can do? Yet when Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, was questioned about schemes such as the Healthy Ratings Scheme, which was mentioned in the first chapter of the Plan, she said it was an issue for the Department for Education. She did state that PHE was “standing ready” to help in the revision of the school food standards.

Tedstone opened the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum with a talk on how the government will achieve its aim of cutting childhood obesity by half by 2030. There is a mountain to climb, she explained, with overweight and obese children consuming up to 500 calories more than they need to a day.

Sugar reduction has been a major focus for PHE, a 20% reduction in sugar by 2020 in products providing the most sugar in children’s diets. Reformulation is one area, reducing portion size another, and third, using the “marketing power of companies to shift purchases towards healthier products”.

Tedstone recognised that retailers and manufacturers are only part of the answer and that we are now consuming 25-30% of our calories out of home where portion sizes are much larger than those from a retailer.

Combined with the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and the calorie reduction programme for the likes of pizza and sandwiches – a target to reduce calorie content by 20% by 2024 – these three programmes will address about 50% of the calories being consumed by children.

Tedstone confirmed a pilot PHE is testing to work on a local area to address obesity. Traditionally, obesity actions for local authorities come out of the public health department, but said Tedstone, “if we want to address obesity we need to think about our planning system, about our transport system, our litter policy”. PHE is also developing a treatment prevention digital offer for families to help them manage their children’s weight.

Much of the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum was about marketing and Guy Parker, chief executive at the Advertising Standards Authority, set the scene with the current laws around advertising foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS), which are “some of the toughest restrictions in the world”, he said.

Between 2005 and 2009, there was a 37% drop in the number of children exposed to HFSS adverts and new data shows that this has come down even further.

However, Parker said that restricting advertising is “not the silver bullet”, stating that a 9pm watershed ban on adverts would not be the answer without evidence it was needed.

A survey from the Obesity Health Alliance which also spoke at the Forum, shows that 65% of the public supports the idea of a TV watershed.

We also heard from the legal side of the debate regarding food and retailers. Hilary Ross, executive partner in food and hospitality at DWF, asked the room: “Is the law an effective driver for behavioural changes?”.

The answer, she said, is yes in many respects, but the law cannot be used in isolation and it has to be consistently and fairly applied. Ross praised PHE for using policy to drive consumer changes in behaviour as well as impose mandatory restrictions, highlighting campaigns such as the 100 calorie snacks, 5-a-day, sugar swaps and the Eatwell Guide (although she had plenty to criticise about the unintended consequences of this).

The Westminster event always draws in opinionated people, some with very specialist and niche areas of interest. One of the speakers was Hugo Harper, principal advisor for health at The Behavioural Insights Team, who stressed the importance on reducing calories above anything else in the quest for reducing obesity. Just reducing portion size could reduce calorie intake by 144-228 calories he said, leading to a 4kg loss in a year for a typical overweight man. The issue of calorie reduction and calorie labelling soon became a key talking point for the rest of the day.

Indeed, later on we heard from Kate Halliwell from the Food and Drink Federation about the progress of manufacturers on reformulation and she mentioned that discussions on calorie reduction were made only the week previously.

“From our perspective we have always felt as an obesity strategy, energy should be the primary focus,” she said. “If your primary outcome is obesity reduction, then the primary focus with any reformulation programme should be energy reduction. Whether that’s calorie density – so calories per 100g – or whether that’s thinking about appropriate portion size. We are really pleased that the government has moved on to a calorie reduction programme.”

However, there were many discussions from speakers and the audience about how the public health message is not aligned to the rules on what manufacturers can state on their labels, which is the cause of confusion for many families looking for food information.

The event also welcomed Paul Lindley, chair of the new Child Obesity Taskforce for London, who EDUcatering Magazine interviewed last month. He provided an introduction to the Taskforce and background on why it is needed; 1.5m children aged 11 in London, nearly 40%, are overweight or obese. What’s more, children living just 2-3 miles away can have eight years’ difference in their life expectancy depending on the deprivation of the area.

“People are making normal decisions in an abnormal, obesogenic environment,” he said. “We need to change the environment to then change behaviour.”

Lindley was heading to the very first Taskforce meeting that afternoon, but I’m sure we will be hearing from the group soon. It promises to engage with different sectors that contribute to the environment to create a whole system approach.

“We will create actions, we don’t want to be a talking shop,” he said.

While marketing and reformulation are crucial parts to the government’s strategy, it is a whole system approach that is needed. Families need to know what they’re buying and the out of home sector – including schools – needs to make it easier for people to make the right choices.