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January 13, 2014

Best bits: Industry beware as obesity returns to spotlight

It is the time of year when health is on many of our minds and, in recent days, obesity has led the news agenda. Today, in the UK, there were claims forecasts may end up having under-estimated the problem. The food industry needs to be seen to be acting on the issue or end up being seen as part of the problem.

By Dean Best

It is the time of year when many of us pledge to eat more healthily, lose weight and exercise more. 

However, in a matter of weeks for many of us those get-healthy ambitions go to the wall. Gym memberships lie idle and the idea of a lunchtime run seems less attractive as winter drags on.

It is easy, though, to be flippant. For some, obesity is a real issue. And, in recent days, health campaigners and academics have again sought to convince the public and government the issue is a serious problem and needs tackling – now.

Last week, academics in the UK, US and Canada launched Action on Sugar to try to pressure the industry to reduce the level of sugar in food.

And today a number of front pages in the UK have carried headlines on the country’s “obesity crisis”. A report from The National Obesity Forum has claimed previous forecasts that half the UK’s population could be obese by 2050 may have underestimated the problem.

It is quite obvious the launch of Action on Sugar and the National Obesity Forum report have been timed to try to have maximum impact with the wider public, with many looking at their diet and lifestyle in the early weeks of the year.

However, few would argue with the fact obesity – and the illnesses linked to the condition – are real problems not just for the UK but in many countries around the world. These are not just issues of health but also issues of finance, with the rising obesity forecast to put greater strain on public expenditure in the years ahead.

It is also the case few would argue the industry has simply sat on its hands. An independent report in the US issued last week claimed to show food manufacturers that pledged to cut 1.5 trillion calories from their products by next year haveexceeded their target by over four times.

Nevertheless, the industry should recognise more work needs to be done. When the head of the World Health Organization characterises “Big Food” alongside “Big Tobacco” as presenting a “daunting challenge” to public health, manufacturers and retailers should sit up and take notice. Such language is being used more and more in campaigning and NGO circles and it could easily move into the political sphere.

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