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UK to lead WHO network to champion sugar and calorie reduction

Speaking yesterday (13 September) at the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, revealed that the framework will invite countries across Europe to take action to cut sugar and calorie intake.“The WHO EU region covers around 50 countries, meaning that it extends beyond the European Commission’s framework for action…

Speaking yesterday (13 September) at the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, revealed that the framework will invite countries across Europe to take action to cut sugar and calorie intake.

“The WHO EU region covers around 50 countries, meaning that it extends beyond the European Commission’s framework for action and would have a much wider reach,”​ the UK Government – which recently exited the European Union – said.

UK’s ‘world-leading’ expertise in HFSS restrictions

Announcing the initiative, the UK Government said it had agreed to use its ‘world-leading’ expertise in domestic sugar and calorie reduction to support the efforts of European neighbours.

“It’s a testament to the success of our pioneering work in the UK to help people eat more healthily that we have been chosen to lead this programme,”​ Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid said. “We will work closely with our European partners to challenge the food industry to reduce sugar and calories in its products – reducing obesity, relieving pressure on health services and increasing our resilience to COVID-19 and any future pandemics.”

Public Health England (PHE) introduced voluntary targets to reduce sugar, salt and calories in 2014. Subsequent policy has built on this foundation, including the country’s childhood obesity programme and the planned introduction of tougher restrictions to high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) marketing and promotions​.

The UK’s new HFSS rules will impose media and promotional restrictions on ‘unhealthy’ products. Volume promotions, such as buy-one-get-one-frees and two-for-one deals, will no longer be allowed for these items. A ban will come into force on HFSS products being placed in secondary promotional locations in stores, such as end of aisle displays, store entrances and checkouts. Marketing of HFSS SKUs will no longer be permitted in digital and pre-watershed TV.

The Department of Health and Social Care’s new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities – launching on October 1st – will lead continuing national efforts to ‘improve and level up the health of the nation’ and is tasked with tackling obesity, helping improve mental health and promoting physical activity.

It is hoped that these restrictions will help consumers reduce their intake of HFSS products in the UK. However, there is expected to be an economic cost and the regulation faced strong opposition from the Food and Drink Federation and Advertising Association​. According to estimates from IRI, the new regulations place £1.1bn in food and beverage sales at risk per year.

GettyImages-Lisa5201 child children marketing computer

HFSS marketing pre-watershed and online will be banned in the UK / Pic: GettyImages-Lisa5201

A recipe for success?

The UK government said its ongoing initiatives to tackle obesity and ‘challenge the food industry’ to reduce sugar and calories in the food most commonly consumed by children have ‘seen good progress’.

Figures from the Department of Health and Social Care show sugar has been cut by an average of 13% from breakfast cereals, yogurts and fromage frais.

Nevertheless, critics argue that the UK’s progress has been too slow. Research released last month suggests that the ten largest food businesses operating in the country have made little progress to improve the nutritional quality of their products over a four-year period​. 

The study, led by Dr Lauren Bandy and colleagues at the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health, evaluated products made by the top ten food and beverage companies between 2015 and 2018.

“We saw little evidence that the recommended current targets have made a significant difference and we believe that without more policy action and a transparent monitoring and evaluation system, it is unlikely there will be meaningful change,”​ Dr Bandy observed.

Overall, there was a ‘small increase’ in the number of products classified as healthy: 46% in 2015 compared to 47% in 2018. There was also an increase in sales that were considered healthy, which rose from 44% in 2015 to 51% in 2018. The researchers said that this was largely due to sugar reduction efforts in the soft drinks category ahead of the 2018 introduction of a sugar levy.

Dr Bandy said that progress made in soft drinks showed what could be achieved through reformulation – as well as the effectiveness of financial policy levers to spur action.

“We know that if we are to see the reduction in diet-related disease that is needed in the population, the food and beverage industry has to step up and improve the nutritional quality of its products. Our study shows that so far, not much has been done to improve the healthiness of household brands owned by top companies, with the exception of soft drinks, which are subject to a tax that has encouraged lower sugar levels. The current focus on voluntary, single-nutrient reformulation targets might want to be reconsidered by policy makers,”​ she suggested.

GettyImages-Nitiphonphat soda coke fizzy drink sugar

Some health campaigners argue fiscal measures like the sugar tax prompted reformulation to go further, faster, than voluntary efforts / Pic: GettyImages-Nitiphonphat

While some health campaigners believe that policy levers like taxation would move the needle further, faster, on HFSS reformulation, others stress that the UK does indeed take a more interventionist approach than many of its global counterparts. 

Chris Whitehouse Chairman and MMD of Whitehouse Communications, which specialises in UK and EU food regulation and public health policy and led the national Obesity Awareness Week​, suggested there is ‘no better choice’ than the UK to head up the Sugar and Calorie


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