Obesity rates continue to rise in children and adults. So we urgently need to rethink the food we eat, specifically the massive amount of readily available junk food high in sugar, salt and saturated fat.
Simply telling people to eat less or eat more healthily doesn’t work. If food is part of the problem, then food must also be part of the solution. This is why the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan announced a structured food and drink reformulation programme. Here we answer eight questions about reformulation.
1. What is a reformulation programme?
Reformulation means changing the recipe of processed food to reduce unhealthy nutrients like sugar, salt or saturated fat. Public Health England (PHE) is leading a reformulation programme to reduce the sugar from nine categories of food that contribute the most sugar to children’s diets. The Government has set an achievable target to the food industry to reduce sugar by 20% by 2020 with a 5% reduction achieved by March 2018. PHE will also be extending this work to reduce calories from foods in 2018.
2. Won’t food that’s been reformulated taste worse?
The food industry is expected to reduce sugar incrementally over a period of time to allow peoples’ palates to gradually adjust to less sweet food and drinks. This approach of gradual reduction was successfully used to reduce salt in everyday products.
3. Doesn’t this mean products will be smaller but the same price?
Not necessarily, cutting the portion size is just one way that manufacturers can reduce sugar. Companies could choose to change the recipe or use promotions to encourage healthier choices instead of changing portion sizes. However, portion size reduction in important to help us tackle obesity rates as research does show that larger portion sizes can encourage us to eat more than we need. And the portion size of many processed foods such as ready meals and pies, have increased over the last 20 years in the UK. It’s important to remember however that the price of products is up to manufacturers to decide and is dependent on a range of factors not just reformulation.
4. Won’t people just eat more to compensate?
Research shows portion sizes can influence how much we eat, with larger portions encouraging us to eat more. Providing smaller portions is one way to counteract this.
Portion-controlled packaging could be useful in helping people understand portion sizes and could help reduce calorie intake.
5. Is reformulation an example of the nanny state going too far?
No, the Government has a duty of care to provide environment for children that promotes health, not disease. Reformulation programmes are about providing supportive environments, giving children a healthy start to life and about enabling people to make healthy and informed choices.
6. How do we know it will even work?
Reformulation programmes are one of the most effective policy interventions that Government can introduce to reduce obesity levels in a cost effective way. A PHE analysis showed that a programme of reformulation to reduce the levels of sugar in the sugary food and drinks we eat the most would significantly lower sugar intakes, particularly if accompanied by reductions in portion size.
The UK has led the world with salt reformulation which successfully reduced the UK’s consumption of salt by 15% between 2003 and 2011. This reduced population blood pressure and 10,000 fewer strokes and heart attacks.
7. When/ how will we know if it has been successful?
The first detailed assessment of progress towards the 5% sugar reduction, achieved in 2017, will be published very soon - in March 2018. We would expect to see a minimum of 5% sugar reduction from baseline across the retail, manufacturer and out of home sectors.
8. What happens if industry doesn’t reformulate their products?
We expect success. The soft drink industry levy has been extremely successful in encouraging the industry to remove sugar from drinks. We should now look to see what lessons could be applied to other unhealthy products.
The Government has set an achievable target to the food industry to reduce sugar by 20% by 2020. Ministers have indicated that if progress does not happen fast enough then they will take further action. This should include mandatory targets or meaningful sanctions for companies who do not comply.
The Government has taken an important first step to reduce levels of excess weight in children with their Childhood Obesity Plan. Reformulating food to reduce sugar, saturated and overall calories is an important measure to help us all make healthier choices. However to bring down obesity rates we need a range of bold and far reaching policies to help create a healthier environment, rather than one which constantly pushes us towards over-eating and unhealthy options.