What’s going to have the most impact on reducing sugar consumption in the UK – educating consumers and encouraging them to change their habits, or changing the environment, reformulation and marketing? Is responsibility ultimately on the individual or industry?
That’s one of the key questions that came out of a panel discussion I was part of at an Action on Sugar event held at Parliament for Sugar Awareness Week.
Campaigners, government officials, health experts and industry experts came together for a networking opportunity all wanting to make a difference, before sitting down to hear from our host Andrew Selous MP, who’s served on the Health Select Committee; Katherine Severi, Chief Executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies; Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of Action on Sugar; and me, asked to speak about how sugar reduction can improve the health of the most vulnerable and what’s our view on industry’s role.
The theme of this year’s Sugar Awareness Week is ‘What’s in your drink’. Action on Sugar have done an excellent job at highlighting a loophole in regulations whereby alcoholic drinks are not obliged to label any nutritional information about their products – even though the calorific and sugar levels are often alarming.
There was universal agreement in the room that something must be done – and everyone can play their part by emailing their local MP to demand change. You can find lots more information on the Action on Sugar website, and I highly recommend you do so.
What, though, will be the ultimate impact of labelling? As Professor MacGregor said yesterday, although labelling and education are a vital step, it’s the environment, formulation of products and marketing that will truly have an impact.
As a nation we are consuming too much sugar on average, which can often mean too many calories, leading to weight gain and obesity. Children, our most vulnerable group, are consuming more than double their maximum recommended allowance of sugar.
In England, around 1 in 4 children have tooth decay and 1 in 3 are overweight or obese by the time they leave primary school.
What’s more, as a 4-5 year old, you’re three times more likely to be overweight or obese if you’re in the most deprived socio-economic group compared to the least deprived: 27.2% vs 17.3%. The results are even worse for 10-11 year olds.
Andrew Selous shared what he discovered on a learning visit to Amsterdam, where the mayor was inspired to do more to reduce child obesity after seeing a girl in a playground who was too overweight to do a forward roll. As the mayor pointed out, if one third of children were suffering from tuberculosis, there would be no avoiding the issue. Action would be taken. The army would be out on the streets helping.
Yet the with obesity comes the complex problem of stigma, shaming and how best to deal with the issue in a ‘publicly correct’ way that’s not going to impact mental health.
What is the role of the wide food industry, retail and out-of-home sectors?
Of course, consumers should make their own choices – and of course we want to encourage them to make good, informed choices benefiting their health and the planet where support for this must continue.
But numerous reports, behavioural change groups and experts globally all concur that if we leave things to individual choice alone, we will not achieve the behavioural change we need to see. We live in environments that are swamped with foods that are high in calories, fat, salt and sugar which are also low in protective nutrients and are heavily promoted to us. Industry has a crucial role to play in providing and marketing healthier choices. Industry can no longer blame poor eating habits on the consumer and their personal choice. It’s especially important for the vulnerable groups, who need the most help.
Examples of positive action for change
An inspiring example from Amsterdam was a supermarket who decided that they didn’t want their consumers to eat unhealthy foods. They changed their environment, made healthier food more accessible, reduced the amount of unhealthy products and made sure the labelling was clear. They had a profit to make but – led by the top – decided that the health of the public was their responsibility too.
Katherine Severi pointed to the action in Scotland to price alcoholic beverages based on the number of units they contained. A 3-litre bottle of cider that previously cost £3.50 went up to over £11 when the law was introduced in May 2018, making it far less accessible to the most deprived.
While it’s too early for full data analysis of the impact, early signs are extremely positive on the positive impact the pricing can have.
What are our recommendations to industry?
1. Stick with the sugar reduction despite the challenges (and ultimately you may have no choice). It makes sense and it’s vitally important to continue to see small subtle incremental reductions in sugar and calories. Reformulation takes time but it IS achievable – we have a precedent with salt reductions.
2. Have a nutrition and health strategy with teeth. It must be:
- Led from the top
- Consistent and joined up across departments and suppliers
- Aligned to both health and sustainability
- Communicated and understood right across the business – from CEO to porter
Marketing and external communications should focus on healthier choices, and for optimum impact should incorporate smart partnerships.
We can’t ignore that change has its challenges:
- Industry has to make money. We can’t impact on jobs in these vulnerable times
- There will be growing pains and these need to be listened to, carefully considered and supported
- Change takes time, goodwill and, crucially, support from the top
But there is reason to believe that now, perhaps, there are colliding drivers to move us in the right direction:
- The health of the nation and its impact on socio-economics is stark
- More and more consumer groups are demanding action, for both health and environmental issues
- The financial necessity to change is on the horizon. The likes of Share Action, amongst others, are telling investors that if business don’t change, they will be at risk.
Getting the government to take action
The government said they wanted to half childhood obesity by 2030. That is not going to happen with their current plan.
If our new Government doesn’t have the foresight to act and create the level playing field that industry says it needs, industry needs to get together and lobby for it to be implemented over a reasonable period of time, which at the very least:
- Ensures only healthy products (not high in fat, salt and sugar) to be marketed, promoted and advertised
- Makes uniform colour-coded labelling on front of pack mandatory on all products sold in retail and out-of-home
At the moment, despite all the health and economic imperatives, obesity simply isn’t the top of the agenda.
As each member of yesterday’s panel said, for the sake of our nation’s health and the planet, it’s going to take us all coming together to create a powerful voice and movement for change.