The UK government and food industry are making a concerted effort to tackle the mounting obesity crisis – but Professor David Haslam of the National Obesity Forum tells just-food more must be done by all stakeholders to reverse the tide of rising obesity levels.

The problem of obesity represents a massive challenge for the food industry and policy makers globally. The World Health Organization declared obesity an epidemic in 1997. Over the past 30 years, the number of obese adults in the world has doubled and obesity-related diseases currently kill 2.8m adults each year.

In the UK, a 2007 investigation into obesity, the Foresight Report, predicted around 50% of the country’s population will be classified as obese by 2050. However, today (13 January), there were fresh warnings that stark prediction could in fact underestimate the scale of the crisis.

Unveiling a report from the National Obesity Forum, the organisation’s chair Professor David Haslam suggested the UK should consider itself “lucky” if just half the population were obese by 2050.

If current trends persist, the National Obesity Forum predicts over the next 36 years the majority of people in the UK will be classified as obese. The implications of for the health of the population – and the national purse given the extra stresses that would be placed on the National Health Service – are far-reaching.

However, speaking to just-food this morning, Haslam emphasises all is not lost. “We aren’t just trying to be the voice of doom, we are trying to do something about it,” he insists. “[Obesity trends] can be changed. It is going to take at least a generation to do… We’ve got to do something now.”

Last week, the National Obesity Forum released the results of a study where it “took over a supermarket”. The campaign group used life-sized cut outs of doctors and nurses at point of sale to urge consumers to make healthier purchasing choices.

“Some things can be done instantly and make a difference to the health of the nation. So why aren’t they being done? We are trying to show that [efforts like the POS awareness campaign] won’t hit sales – they actually result in an increase in sales of certain healthier items,” Haslam says.

The results of the trial showed a significant jump in fruit sales – with fresh sales up 20% and frozen sales up 30% – as well as higher sales of products such as fish. The Forum saw no change in vegetable sales, while data has not yet been processed on the impact on sales of products that are high in fat and sugar, Haslam says.

In this way, food retailers can contribute positively to efforts to lower obesity rates, he argues. “Retailers can make it easier to make healthier choices. Consumers want to buy fizzy drinks and retailers will stock these products. But the low-sugar option should be the one that is put at eye level.”

From a manufacturing standpoint, the biggest opportunities to lower obesity rates are reformulation and labelling, Haslam says.

“Manufacturers need to focus on reformulation – and a reduction in sugar content – in particular,” he suggests.

Haslam believes that as consumer palates become accustomed to lower sugar options, uptake of reduced sugar food and drink will grow. “It is like salt. The salt reduction campaign has been a big success. You soon get used to not eating sugar. Ask anyone who has stopped taking sugar in their tea, if you are given it by accident, you want to spit it at the wall.”

The food industry should step up its efforts around health and wellness and Haslam favours a voluntary multi-stakeholder approach. However, if this fails to produce sufficient results, Haslam argues regulation should be considered.

“I hope our report from last week [on POS campaigning] will mean [the Government] doesn’t have to introduce regulations… But if nothing happens then yes, there should be regulations about the sugar content of food… There is a lot of talk about the ‘fat tax’ but sugar is also a major issue.”

At present, the UK government’s efforts are focused on a voluntary industry code – the Responsibility Deal – and the Change4Life initiative. However, Haslam does not believe the programme is substantial enough – with funding being a major issue.

“The government get it. They get the problem. We don’t want to be seen as government-bashing. But not enough is invested in Change4Life – and a [larger] expenditure now will save billions in the years to come.”

Other areas where “small changes” can make a difference to the obesity crisis include efforts around school meals and alterations to the built environment, such as encouraging the use of escalators instead of stairs.

Haslam’s message to the food sector would seem to be coming through loud and clear. The health campaigner, like many in the field, would prefer a voluntary approach. But, with time running out and a generation already lost to obesity, if the industry does not step-up its efforts pressure for the government to legislate on the matter is likely to mount.

Click here to view our news coverage of the National Obesity Forum’s report.