Blog: Dean BestIndustry needs to nudge consumers along road to health

Dean Best | 19 November 2014

How can diet-related ill-health be tackled? How can the health and wellbeing of the population improve? Such a complex issue is often reduced to soundbites and brickbats, with industry in the firing line. Some of the criticism is misjudged, some well-founded. However, what is certain is manufacturers have a central - perhaps the central - role to play.

Day one of the Food Matters Live conference and exhibition in London yesterday (18 November) left just-food wondering just what can be done on problems including diabetes and obesity.

Often, industry is held up as the bad guy, putting its marketing might behind unhealthy products, and using the get-out clause of such foods being okay to eat as "part of a balanced diet".

Industry, at times, throws up its hands, defensively pointing to the work it is making in reformulation and insisting it is difficult to square health with taste and convenience and, let's not forget, with consumers, who can vary from health advocates to the downright disinterested. Governments, the industry argument can often run, need to do more to educate consumers on the link between food and health.

As with many complex debates, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Nevertheless, food manufacturers should be under no illusion about the central role they have to play in improving health.

Governments should be putting more resources behind education. They should be working with industry to devise creative ways to re-engage the average punter with food. All this is being done in some markets and should be applauded. However, the problem with education is that it takes a long time to see any benefits. It takes years to know what has worked and what hasn't. And public education programmes will be devised in the context of politicians fearful at being seen as Nanny and eyeing re-election every five years.

A necessary and more short-term solution is for industry to work hard on product development both overtly, launching and marketing heathier foods, and also by stealth, quietly reducing the salt or sugar content of some of consumers' favourite brands.

Yesterday's very first session included some of the most insightful comments of the day. Professor Jack Winkler, MRC human nutrition research at the University of Cambridge, told delegates industry had to play a central role.

He said politicians are loathe to get too involved in the issue for fear of appearing to tell consumers what to eat and, if they regulate, seeming to favour some parts of the industry over others. Consumers, he continued, cannot take the lead as some are disinterested in eating healthily. It falls to industry, which can drive health improvements, he argued, pointing to the work on reducing salt in products in the UK. "It may not be the ideal everyone would like but it's the best option available to us," Winkler said.

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