UK government obesity strategy: epic failure

Large tummy and large bottom
“Thick, overweight obesity”; copyright free image: cocoparisienne on Pixabay

The UK government has been talking about obesity for years. 

It has tried gaining industry buy-in through a voluntary “responsibility deal” to reduce fat, salt and sugar in processed foods; it tried to persuade the population to change their ways through the patronising Change4Life programme (which has since morphed into something called Better Health, which nobody has ever heard of); and it is taxing sugar in soft drinks. All to try and persuade the UK population to lose weight. Everything it has tried thus far has had remarkably little impact on obesity levels. And now it is trying something else. Well, two things actually. How successful they will be remains to be seen, although going on past performance, it would be inadvisable to hold your breath.

Calorie labelling

The first thing the government is putting in place is mandatory calorie labelling. This was introduced in April of this year (2022). Any takeaway, restaurant, café, or pub that serves food and which has more than 250 employees is required to display calorie information on all food and non-alcoholic drinks (but bizarrely, not alcoholic drinks) that it provides. And the statement “adults need around 2 000 kcal a day” must also be included in a prominent place. 

Burger, fries and cola
Fast lunch with burger and fries and soda; image: Christopher Williams on Unsplash

Most takeaways and cafés in the UK are small independent outlets. This means they will not need to provide calorie information, which is handy because this is going to cost the industry a fortune. Working out the calorie content for every dish is horribly time consuming, to say nothing of changing every single menu, and getting them reprinted. And outlets are also required to provide menus without calorie labelling if a customer asks for one – so double the outlay for two different versions of the same menu.

Many pubs which serve food will be required to include calorie labelling on menus – because they are part of a chain and the chain (rather than the individual outlet) employs more than 250 people. At a time when the cost of living is increasing to the point where eating out is already becoming a rare luxury, the costs of implementing the new requirements will almost certainly be passed on to the consumer. Many businesses which are required to spend the time and money on this may simply fold, leaving yet more empty spaces on high streets up and down the country. 

It’s not going to make food healthier

Lunch menu from the RMS Titanic

There is no incentive in the legislation for restaurants, cafés or takeaways to reformulate their food to reduce calorie counts, so this is not going to make food any “healthier”. Instead the increased cost of producing menus with calorie labelling, coupled with the increased cost of food, is likely to make food less healthy, because better quality, nutrient rich, lower calorie food is more expensive than calorie dense, nutrient poor food. 

It is unclear what the benefits of calorie labelling will be. Do restaurant customers ever ask about calories? For most of us, the point of paying to eat food that someone else has made is a) someone else did all the work (particularly the cleaning up!); b) it tastes good; and c) it is a treat to eat something that we would not normally eat at home. Calories don’t really come into it. 

Did the government bother to find out whether calorie labelling will have any impact on obesity before imposing the law? Because there is quite a bit of research out there that shows that it has very little impact. Although calorie consumption does dip slightly in the first year of calorie labelling, after that it returns to what it was before the labelling was imposed. 

Concerns around eating disorders

What calorie labelling does seem to do is make people rather anxious. Concerns are being raised that the only people likely to take much notice of calorie labelling are those with eating disorders. According to Beat, the UK’s eating disorder charity, there are approximately 1.25 million people in the UK with an eating disorder, 75 percent of whom are female. It is particularly concerning that the pandemic seems to have triggered a sharp increase in eating disorders, particularly among adolescent girls. For some people counting calories is, quite literally, deadly. 

High fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS)

The next piece of legislation the government plans to impose will restrict how foods which are high in fat, salt or sugar can be advertised and marketed. The promotion of this kind of food has been restricted on TV since June 2021; it cannot be advertised on channels intended for children, and advertising cannot be broadcast on other channels before the 9pm watershed. There is no evidence that this has had any impact on childhood obesity so far.

toddler carrying large box, standing next to baby shopping cart
Toddler carrying box of Cheez-Its standing next to yellow shopping cart; image: David Veksler, on Unsplash

On 1 October this year, the snappily titled “The Food (Promotion and Placement) (England) Regulations 2021” will come into force. This will restrict how certain HFSS foods can be promoted, and where products can be placed within a store. The government claims that only “a narrow set of categories will be affected”, but there are a total of 13 categories of foods, each containing multiple foods.

The categories are: any pre-packaged soft drinks (including squash and cordial); cakes; chocolates and sweets; ice cream; morning goods (pastries like croissants); puddings; sweet biscuits; breakfast cereals (including, bizarrely, porridge oats); yogurts; milk-based drinks with added sugar; juice-based drinks with added sugar; pizza; ready meals; breaded and battered products (including fish fingers and other fish products); crisps; savoury snacks; chips and similar potato products. That’s a lot of products. 

Nutrient profiling

Any food within these categories will need to be measured against the government’s ridiculously complicated Nutrient Profiling Model (NPM). To work out an NPM score, a food needs to measure itself against two tables; “A” and “C” (no, I have no idea what happened to “B”). The tables evaluate levels of energy, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium (“A”) as well as fruit, vegetables, nuts, two different types of fibre, and protein content (“C”). But some stuff counts, and some stuff doesn’t count, and how you calculate your score depends on a whole load of other stuff. It’s confusing. At best.

If a food within the categories fails to make the NPM grade, it cannot be placed into any special offer. So supermarkets will no longer be able to run “buy one get one free” (BOGOF), or “3 for 2” offers on HFSS foods like biscuits, crisps, or sweets. Nor will food packaging be able to claim “25% extra free” on any HFSS foods. It will also restrict the kind of things that can go into meal deals. And there will be no special offers on any soft drinks, squashes, or cordials with added sugar (which are already subject to the sugar tax), and things like Slushies.

But it doesn’t stop there 

counter in coffee shop with cakes and crisps
Coffee counter with cakes and crisps; photo by Yasamine June. Free license on Unsplash!

Where foods are placed in stores is also going to be restricted. No HFSS foods will be allowed to be placed within two metres of a checkout. Or in store entrances, aisle ends, within 50cm of the end of an aisle in free standing display units, or on clip strips that hang on shelves. Although many parents may well heave a sigh of relief at the idea of the end of checkout pester power, as with everything to do with this policy, there is no evidence that this is going to have any effect on obesity levels. 

These restrictions will apply to all retailers with 50 or more employees, so it is unlikely to affect farmers markets or independent shops like delis and artisanal producers. And as if restaurants, bars and cafes have not already had enough pressure put on them, free refills of sugary soft drinks will be prohibited. Of course, this might mean that the size of the original drink is simply increased to compensate and may even lead to greater consumption because, although not everyone will go back for a refill, most people will endeavour to empty their glass. And because this particular piece of legislation applies to any business with 50 or more employees, it is going to impact a lot of outlets.

Is all this going to make any difference? 

The government is claiming that these pieces of legislation will create healthier eating out and shopping experiences, reduce obesity rates and improve the health of the UK population. It will certainly change the shopping landscape. But will it really make the UK a healthier place? There are concerns being raised that the narrow focus on calories, fat, salt and sugar is ignoring the wider nutrition picture. Particularly as the government’s own data shows that fat intakes have fallen over the last two decades but that there are numerous significant shortfalls in intakes of vitamins and minerals.

The food industry carries a lot of responsibility around the obesity epidemic through the development and marketing of vast quantities of ultra-processed food. But so too do governments, through poor policy making, and consumers through making uninformed choices. This legislation is putting all of the burden onto industry to make complex changes and the likelihood is that consumers will gain little benefit but will be subject to extra expense and inconvenience.

Actually, it may well be that those increased costs have more impact on consumer choices than the legislation itself!