The recent advice from Public Health England that parents should give their children no more than two snacks a day shows how difficult it is to align healthy diets with today’s lifestyles. But with the staple options like crisps and chocolate bars almost all exceeding the 100-calorie advised limit, is it really fair to put all the burden on parents?
The UK is facing a public health crisis. 62% of UK adults are overweight or obese. Every day more of us are dying from Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, liver disease and cancer. Being the ‘Fat Man of Europe’ is costing the NHS around £19 billion a year, and the bill is set to rise to £31 billion within eight years.
Lack of physical activity and overconsumption have a part to play in this, but we also need to re-think what goes into the foods we eat. Britain eats almost four times as much packaged food as it does fresh. Since salt, sugar and saturated fat are added to packaged food to increase their shelf life and make them taste better, we inadvertently exceed our daily recommendations when we consume them. Changing the composition of these foods is therefore vital if we are to tackle the obesity epidemic. Doing so would avoid needless human suffering and save millions of pounds down the line.
With obesity by no means confined to the UK, responding to the need for healthy food would also offer great potential for international business growth. As the UK prepares to exit Europe’s regulatory framework and its market (which bought 71% of UK food and non-alcoholic exports last year), ‘going nutritious’ could reinvigorate our food industry, capitalising on new market opportunities and sending a clear message that the UK will uphold standards.
The Government has taken some tentative action. The childhood obesity program has called for a 20% sugar reduction in children’s products by 2020, and big names like Kellogg’s and Nestlé are starting to respond. The Government’s Industrial Strategy White Paper, and its promise of a new Food and Drink Sector Council is also welcome. However, meaningful progress will require Government to address the food industry’s innovation problem, as ResPublica set out in a recent report.
Firstly, the Government must set clear goals for scaling up investment in research and development. Product reformulation, which is fundamental to tackling the obesity crisis, requires innovative research. However, research and development in the sector receives relatively little government support – companies currently self-fund three quarters of their research and development, which is around 10% more than other industries.
Secondly, the Government must invest in a health-focused food manufacturing catapult center to address the industry’s institutional deficit. Life-sciences, transport, medicines and space sectors all benefit from these centers, but the food and drink industry does not have its own Government-backed institutional framework.
Finally, the Government must align health policy with industrial strategy to reward investment in nutrition. Existing arrangements fail to incentivise the necessary change. Instead, levies such as the sugar tax need to be fully integrated to drive product reformulation.
Only Government and manufacturers working together can reverse the obesity trajectory. The Government must act now to develop innovation in healthy food, by investing in research, creating new institutions and aligning health policy with industrial strategy. The alternative is too unpalatable to consider – lives will be lost and lucrative business export missed.
But that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t keep the snack bowl firmly out of reach.