A special report on BBC's Newsnight yesterday revealed that dozens of lawyers in the United States, including many that took on the tobacco companies, have filed cases against food industry giants including PepsiCo and Heinz for misleading consumers and violating federal regulations by wrongly labelling products and ingredients. Whether this is just the tip of the iceberg as far as litigation goes against the food industry remains to be seen but it certainly begs the question of how much do we truly know about what we're eating and whether current nutritional labelling in the UK is fit for purpose. In addition, what lengths will the industry go to in marketing products that are healthy when in fact they could be the complete opposite?
With one in three children in the UK overweight or obese by the age of nine, and a recent analysis of 50,000 children by researchers at Oxford University published in the BMJ demonstrating markers of raised cholesterol, raised blood pressure, and even enlarged hearts in this group we need to be more vigilant than ever about what we and our children are putting into their mouths. Last month an investigation by the Children's Food Campaign revealed that Nestle is still using a banned nutritional claim in its breakfasts advertising, knowingly breaching advertising codes and breaking its own promises to the industry regulator.
Malcolm Clark, Co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, said that Nestle has chosen to present a misleading impression of the nutritional value of cereals it targets at children. "The amount of whole grain they may contain does not make up for the high levels of sugar and salt."
Jane Landon, Director of Policy at the National Heart Forum says that "people have a right
to know what is in their food. What we currently know about our food is led by the promotional information that companies prefer to put on pack, not objective information about the nutritional content."
It horrifies me to see people gorging on products marketed as "low fat" that are loaded with
carbohydrates and sugar which is more likely to lead to increased weight. There is mounting scientific evidence that not only is sugar toxic to the body but it also drives appetite by interfering with hormones produced by the brain that give us a sense of fullness. It may also have addictive properties.
Two randomised trials published in the New England Journal of Medicine last month provide the strongest evidence so far that sugary drinks really do encourage weight gain in children and adolescents. Actions to reduce consumption are therefore justified and should be supported. It is high time that the government also enforced traffic light labelling of the amounts of sugar, salt and fat on all appropriate food products. In a review of evidence pertaining to this the House of Lords Science and Technology committee reported last year that not only can traffic light labels aid comprehension of nutritional information, but they can also encourage consumers to make healthier choices. Such a system will make it easier to interpret food items for people from all backgrounds and also influence manufacturers to reformulate products to make them healthier.
There is an obvious clash between public health advocates and a very powerful food lobby that will go to any length to protect their only interest; profit. The food industry has a dedicated, financially and politically powerful strategy to deflect the responsibility and blame for the obesity epidemic on to the individual. One obvious example is companies such as McDonald's and Coca Cola advocating the role of exercise in tackling obesity whilst using the Olympic Games, the most effective marketing platform in the world, to promote their brands.
There are a multitude of benefits of exercise in improving both physical and mental health.
If I didn't believe it I wouldn't spend 45 minutes in the gym daily but as far as obesity is concerned the focus should be more on calories consumed. A recent editorial in the British Medical Journal pointed out that based on evidence from studies the link between physical inactivity and child obesity is weak.
If I drank a thick shake from a local fast food joint I would have to run for ten miles to burn it
off. Therefore any exercise intervention for children has to be backed up by food education.
Last week I spoke at a fringe meeting on obesity at the Conservative Party Conference organised by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. There was a consensus of opinion that more drastic interventions were imperative to tackle the growing problem of child obesity including the curtailing of junk food advertising to children. Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, a member of the health select committee, said she was "horrified" by the contents of a vending machine in a local paediatric outpatient department and that displaying and selling junk food in hospitals is clearly sending out the "wrong message."
A government advisor told me that "this government doesn't like banning things." But if we are going to truly alter the statistics on obesity and save millions from preventable diet related diseases it is essential to introduce measures based upon the best available evidence, not blindly succumb to political ideology. Is it not the government's duty to protect citizens from the manipulations of the food industry? Who would argue that the public smoking ban and the compulsory introduction of air bags in cars, both heavily opposed for years by Big Tobacco and the auto industry respectively, was not necessary for the interest of public health? The current strategy of appeasing the food industry with the responsibility deal is doomed to failure.
One of Britain's most respected and decorated public health experts, Professor Simon Capewell, who previously advised Andrew Lansley said that allowing the food industry to self-regulate was "like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank."
But there is a glimmer of hope. Recent reports suggest that the mayor of London Boris Johnson has made tackling child obesity a priority and is looking to lobby the coalition government on a series of issues such as regulating school dinners, food labelling and food advertising. Very soon the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, representing 200,000 doctors in the UK and lead by its new president, Professor Terence Stephenson, will produce a report on what the medical profession believes needs to be done to tackle this public health crisis. If we know what the most effective and necessary interventions are then for the sake of our children's health we cannot afford to waste any more time.
Follow Dr Aseem Malhotra on Twitter: www.twitter.com/draseemmalhotra