UK food industry – friend or foe in tackling obesity?

As part of writing my book I promised to share my latest research findings about why the UK is getting fatter and more unhealthy. Last month I focused on plant-based foods and how easy (or not) it is to find out about them online when browsing the UK supermarket websites. This month I’m sharing my latest findings on what the UK food industry has been up to.

Many of you may know that the restaurant entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby was tasked with pulling together an independent UK national food strategy. The paper was published in July 2021 to great fanfare but sadly there’s not been much of a government reaction so far, as they wrestle with the Covid crisis.

The food industry in the form of the Food and Drink Sector Council (FDSC) has responded to the findings of the UK National Food Strategy with a report called “Feeding the Future: Working together to build the National Food Strategy”. [i]

Whilst acknowledging that product recipes and sustainability need to be improved and portion sizes reduced, they’re countering that a ten year timeframe is more realistic to achieve change in the UK’s food culture and are calling for a doubling of the food industry’s research and development spend.

Whilst it has set an objective in its report of halving childhood obesity rates and reversing obesity rates in the UK, it’s fighting back on the idea of sugar and salt taxes. Ten years is an incredibly long time to wait to see any change in the food industry practices and the food industry representatives were clear in their input to the UK National Food Strategy that they won’t change without legislation on sugar and salt, which creates a more level playing field.

The part of this paper which is not believable is the consumer research quoted by the IGD and YouGov which they claim shows that “most believe that broadly our existing diet and consumption are healthy and sustainable”. I don’t see how the FDSC’s report can claim this when all the statistics have shown our increasing dependence on unhealthy ultra-processed and fast food has skyrocketed and driven up our obesity rates.

When I sought to actually look at the YouGov research they are quoting, it shows clearly that consumers may think they are eating healthily but the research shows that their healthy intentions do not always translate into actions. [ii]

In fact the actual title of the research is “British people think they are healthy eaters, but their shopping baskets say differently.” We know for a fact that the obesogenic environments created by the food industry lead us to forego our best intentions. In fact the research showed that 24% of the self-assessed healthy eaters are in fact not healthy shoppers according to their grocery shop.

The FDSC report concludes that one barrier to purchasing more healthy food is price and “putting healthy eating into practice is many people’s downfall”. When you read about the money spent on research in the food industry to enable consumers to reach the “bliss point” to ensure they become addicted to unhealthy sugary and salty processed food, I don’t have much faith that the money they’re requesting for R&D will be spent on the right type of research to encourage us to eat more healthily. They’ve already persuaded us to believe we eat healthily when the reality is that we don’t, as this same research points out. We need to stop the big food industry deception about low-fat foods and processed breakfast cereals branded as healthy, but often packed with sugar. In the case of low-fat yoghurts they’re often more harmful than the full-fat equivalents and it pays to read the labels carefully.

If there is no acknowledgement by the food industry on the scale of unhealthy and unsustainable diets in the UK, then I have little confidence that the food industry is going to bring about the scale of change we need to reverse the UK’s climbing obesity rates without more regulation.

What’s your view and how do you see your shopping habits? Are you one of those shoppers that starts out with the best of intentions but can’t resist a tempting offer on your favourite indulgences?

Whilst many of us during Covid times have switched to buying our groceries online, we should watch carefully as to how many unhealthy, tempting offers we see before we continue to the final checkout. That’s more concrete proof as to whether the food industry really has any serious intention of helping us to become more healthy. Watch what they do rather than what they say.

The UK eats too much ultra-processed foods and is one of the highest consumers in Europe. Whilst some of our popular TV medics such as Michael Mosley are continually extolling the virtues of the Mediterranean diet, we’re still loading our shopping baskets with unhealthy food.

The report rightly confirms that obesity is a complex, systemic challenge but we need to stand up to the food industry and counter one of their claims that it’s a societal issue. They argue that the sugar and salt taxes are “a blunt instrument,” however it’s clear that the last levy on soft drinks led to a reformulation of drinks and did not lead to price increases. It actually led to a reduction in the UK’s average kcal per capita per day from 3,393 to 3,344 in 2018. However, it also increased the UK consumption of sweeteners from 3.96kg per capita per year in that same year to a whopping 7.58kg and the sweetener delusion will be the topic of a future blog. Watch this space.



Photo Credit: Craig Cooper on Unsplash