Faced with some alarming data on obesity, the UK this week announced its latest strategy to battle the bulge. A target for industry to reduce calories has its merits and, Dean Best writes, will have pleased industry, too.

Tuesday saw the announcement of the UK’s latest move to tackle obesity.

As part of the UK government’s childhood obesity strategy, set out in 2016, manufacturers have been set a target to reduce calories in foods ranging from cooking sauces to crisps by 20% by 2024, Public Health England announced.

The target – and how PHE plans to encourage and cajole industry into hitting it – appears broadly cogent, even if there are some areas where the agency is likely to attract the sceptics.

And, even if food manufacturers operating in the UK now have a target to reduce calories – to go alongside those on salt and sugar – it would be a surprise if the industry had too many gripes with the Government’s plans.

The target on sugar issued last year – a 20% reduction in nine categories by 2020 – has had its critics within industry, with manufacturers warning it would “not be technically possible or acceptable to consumers” to meet the goal across all those product areas. Suppliers have said other strategies, like lowering portion sizes and encouraging the switch to lower-sugar alternatives, will have to be used.

Suppliers have long bemoaned the policy of – until now – focusing on single ingredients, instead wanting initiatives to look at calories as a whole. It was little surprise Tuesday’s announcement was “warmly welcomed” by the Food and Drink Federation, the trade body representing manufacturers operating in the UK.

“FDF has long advocated an approach to tackling obesity which looks beyond individual nutrients and instead primarily focuses on calories,” Ian Wright, the federation’s director general, said.

Wright also said it was “encouraging” the Government’s “renewed focus looks not just at the food and drink bought for consumption at home, but also at takeaways, restaurants and cafés”. Some in the UK’s food-retail channel have long argued the spotlight shines less on the foodservice sector.

The UK government’s plans also won praise from health advocates. Jo Jewell, the technical director for The World Health Organization’s regional office in Europe, tweeted this week: “Fantastic work by @PHE_obesity to date on their calorie reduction programme. It’s impressive to see the steps taken and the careful consideration of available data to determine the scope and focus.”

The message from PHE on the scale of the issue in the UK was stark. “Britain needs to go on a diet,” PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie said. 

Alison Tedstone, the PHE’s chief nutritionist, said the UK has “more obese children in the UK than ever before” and, underlining how the agency believes the calorie target will also help overweight adults, added: “More than 60% of us as adults or obese or overweight. We’ve moved beyond it affecting a small section of the society; it’s the norm now. This [target] is about the food that we’re all consuming and the programme will not only help children, it will help everybody because it helps the whole family.

During the summer and autumn, PHE plans to consult with interested stakeholders as it draws up specific targets for the 13 product categories to which the calorie-reduction programme applies by the middle of next year. 

The 13 categories, which also include foods like ready meals and sandwiches, do not feature among the nine covered by the separate sugar-reduction programme, although Tedstone sought to underline that, if the sugar and calorie targets are met, and the upcoming soft-drinks levy achieves its ambition, “up to 50% of calories” would be removed from the UK diet.

For now, of course, as with the thrust of the Conservative-led government’s work since 2010, the calorie target will, in strict terms, be voluntary. Aside from the levy set to be placed in certain soft drinks from 6 April, the UK government tends to work with the food and drinks industry on initiatives to fight obesity, rather than legislate.

There will always be a constituency of campaigners opposed to voluntary targets, even amid the successes seen in areas like salt reduction.

 PHE’s plans to scrutinise progress on the calorie target and publicise its findings (publication scheduled for March 2021) – in effect ‘naming and shaming’ tardy manufacturers – will assuage some. 

“There will be complete transparency and published progress or not, by category, by company, by products,” Selbie said. 

Tedstone added: “PHE’s job is to see what industry is doing and report what it’s doing. We will do that on a regular basis. We will do it for the big-selling products and at company level. To get traction on this, the big-selling things need to change. A few healthy options on the end of a menu won’t help solve the nation’s obesity problem. We need the regular, everyday products to change. We will publish lots of data. That data is important because PHE will advise government if progress isn’t being made.”

For all that, the question of how that progress will be monitored (and how effectively) was a common concern in NGO circles on Tuesday.

The emphasis PHE placed in its announcement on foodservice should be welcomed. UK consumers have in recent years shown a propensity to dine out more and, according to the agency, foodservice collectively contributes 20-25% of an adult’s energy intake.

“The out-of-home sector needs to be part of the journey. We just can’t say it’s a treat when buying products from those companies every day,” Tedstone said.

However, there remain questions over how much of the foodservice sector will participate in efforts towards the calorie-reduction target. The PHE report published on Tuesday said it was “essential that this sector as a whole engages as fully as retailers and manufacturers with the reduction and reformulation programme to ensure both a level playing field and that excess calorie intakes are successfully tackled”.

Alongside the publication of the calorie target, PHE said it was also extending its One You education campaign to try to get adults to be more conscious of the calories in their food.

The new part of the campaign is suggesting adults try to limit the calories of their three main meals to 400 for breakfast and 600 each for lunch and dinner.

Tedstone said the agency had received commitments of support for the campaign from foodservice providers including McDonald’s and Subway and indicated there would be “signposting” in outlets “towards the options that fit in” with the 400/600/600 guidance.

Nevertheless, given how fragmented the sector is, how can smaller operators – which, by PHE’s own admission still accounts for half of the foodservice channel – be encouraged to act? The dialogue and work with the likes of McDonald’s and Subway is understandable to some degree given their scale and marketing heft but what about the cafe on the corner?

“This is about companies that are providing volume into the market. We’re focusing our analysis that are providing volume for families,” Tedstone said. “This is not about micro businesses. It’s about big business. It’s about where you go and buy your lunch. For the out-of-home market, 50% of the volume comes from the big suppliers.”

And, of course, for all the reformulation work that will undoubtedly be carried out, what of the promotional tactics used by the suppliers and their retail customers? Offers in-store are a factor in the consumption of too many calories. Can industry be encouraged to wean itself off those types of practices?

However, broadly, the programme is a step in the right direction in the UK’s battle of the bulge and PHE should be commended. The industry, meanwhile, will be satisfied.