Saturday, March 2, 2013
Food companies and our health
Fat and salt can satisfy the human appetite like few other foods.
Photograph: Ian Garlick/ActionAid/PA
Food companies and our health
While some companies are taking genuine steps to supply healthier food to their customers, there is a long way to go before this is universal
Charlotte Sankey for the Guardian Professional Network
guardian.co.uk, Monday 2 July 2012 11.48 BST
When hunger is gnawing, there is a food we find almost impossible to resist: a plate of hot chips, sprinkled with plenty of salt. Fat and salt in this glorious combination can satisfy the human appetite like few other foods.
It reflects a sad state of affairs – how we are overly attracted to eating things which, in excess, do us harm: fat, salt, sugar. Delicious.
Once upon a time, when we were running around the veld and food was hard to come by, a lust for fat and salt was pretty helpful. Those who best survived hardship were the ones who had gorged themselves on energy-rich animal fat. Sugar love goes back to our primate heritage, when we spent our days in the forest searching for fruit – riper fruit supplied more energy and water.
Out of date taste buds
Today our taste buds have not moved on in tandem with our lifestyles. Sugar and salt are addictive. Going to the supermarket can be quite overwhelming for anyone with an addictive personality.
England has one of the highest rates of obesity in Europe, doubling over the last 25 years, with over 60% of adults overweight or obese today (26% obese, 34% overweight). Diet-related chronic disease costs the NHS £7 billion a year, and poor diet could account for a third of all cases of both cancer and cardiovascular disease. "Our food system is failing," said Joan Walley MP, chair of the government's Environmental Audit Committee.
A multi-faceted solution
Is it really beyond our collective ken to sort this out? The tricky bit is that the solution does not, of course, come in the shape of a single silver bullet. It depends on complex web of factors such as how much we exercise (or not) and what we eat (or don't) – and what we choose to eat stems from the way food is priced, advertised, the culture we live in. There is also what we are allowed to eat, either by governments regulating what can be sold to us, or us disciplining ourselves.
So how are we doing? We are certainly eating less salt – in this the UK leads the world (the WHO says salt reduction is as important as stopping smoking). Salt and fat consumption are down 9% since 2006. One of the main culprits, branded sliced bread, has a third less salt since 2006.
Until the recession, nutrition in the UK was improving – we were eating more fruit and vegetables year on year. Various health campaigns contributed: the Soil Association's Food for Life, National Heart Alliance in Ireland, the Healthy Eating campaign in Scotland. The famous Five A Day campaign, launched by the Department of Health in 2002, was having an impact: at its launch we were eating 1.4 pieces of fruit and veg a day, which rose to 3.3 by 2006. With the recession, this fell to 3.2 by 2009, and we were eating more fats and sugars. "Foods high in fat, sugar and salt seem less expensive but actually deliver less nutrition," says Dr Emma Williams of the British Nutrition Foundation.
In the UK, food producers and retailers are not obliged to make food healthy: unlike for smoking and alcohol there is no regulation on food. While countries such as Denmark and France use various fat taxes this does not happen in the UK – which prefers targets and guidelines – or in most of the US.
Witness the impassioned backlash when the mayors of New York and Cambridge MA proposed banning 30oz supersize drinks. The campaign, supported by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told how larger portions make us eat or drink 20-50% more – and we don't make up by eating less later. The largest drink you can get in Australia, the UK or Italy equates to a medium in the US.
While McDonald's drinks sizes are 457% larger than in 1955, some companies are taking real steps to make their products healthier.
Says Jane Landon of the National Heart Forum: "We have got to where we are largely thanks to willing food companies meeting targets set by the Food Standards Agency in 2006 and 2009."
Andrew Lansley's Responsibility Deal calls on companies to voluntarily make food healthier. It replaces measures by Labour which culminated in Food 2030, a national food strategy under Brown. Professor Tim Lang of City University London is one of the Deal's critics: "Labour created a real focus for a joined-up, solution, and half the food companies were entirely happy with it. This Responsibility Deal has taken us backwards. There are very strong forces against a systemic solution." He explains how a company can sign up to the Deal and do nothing. Jamie Oliver and Sustain's Children's Food Campaign have gone further, calling it "shameful". Lansley defends it, claiming more will be achieved by voluntary action than by "costly and intrusive regulation". A familiar exchange.
What are companies doing?
"But some companies are genuinely concerned and it's not just PR," says Professor Lang. Campaigners and public health experts talk of a split between companies who are taking the issue seriously – especially ones with upmarket customers – and those who are window dressing.
Initiatives range from manufacturers such as Kellogg's reducing the salt in its products by 44%, to retailers like M&S cutting salt in 95% of its foods. M&S has invented a new type of low-salt bacon with 30% less salt, compensated by using a new Asian flavour. "It's not that companies don't want to make food healthier, says Claire Hughes, M&S nutritionist. "More that they don't have enough techniques to make it taste good."
Around 350 food manufacturing, retailing, catering and health organisations have signed up to the Deal. They range from big names Co-Op, Nestle, Mars, Kraft and Tesco to small cheese companies.
But there are the thousands who have not: Budgens, Caffé Nero, Iceland, Londis are some of the better known.
Small surprise that David Stuckler of Cambridge University believes voluntary action is not enough: "There is little or no evidence that self-regulation works without the threat of public regulation in the background. If food companies believed these steps were profitable, they would already being doing them."
Isn't asking a retailer or producer to voluntarily reduce delicious nasties such as sugar and fat a bit like asking them to voluntarily reduce their profits?
So where does that leave us? It is quite baffling that we can take a child into a Wetherspoons and either buy it a sandwich with chips that has more salt (4.8g) than the child should consume in a day (4g), or a spaghetti bolognese that has just 0.1g.
Wouldn't regulation create a more level playing field? "Regulating how much salt should be in 100g of bread is not the way forward," replied M&S nutritionist Claire Hughes. "There are so many different types of bread. It's better to look at rewarding people's good behaviour," she adds.
Pass the chips.
Charlotte Sankey runs Creative Warehouse, a publishing and communications consultancy specialising in the environment, arts and education
Food companies and our health | Guardian Sustainable Business | guardian.co.uk