UK – The UK government has announced new measures aimed at halving childhood obesity rates by 2030, including efforts to prevent stores from displaying unhealthy food at checkouts and to ban the sale of caffeine-laden energy drinks to children.

According to NutritionInsight, the industry and lobby groups have generally welcomed the announcement, as the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) cautions that government restrictions to industry’s ability to advertise healthier options to shoppers, could jeopardize the success of the reformulation program.

Building on the first chapter of the Childhood Obesity Plan, the new measures will also aim to achieve clear, consistent calorie labelling on menus in restaurants, cafés and takeaways.

“It is near impossible to shield children from exposure to unhealthy foods. Parents are asking for help – we know that over three-quarters of parents find offers for sugary sweets and snacks at checkouts annoying.

It’s our job to give power to parents to make healthier choices, and to make their life easier in doing so,” said Jeremy Hunt, British Secretary of State for Health.

The first Childhood Obesity Plan, launched two years ago, was criticized by health and consumer lobby groups for not being stringent enough, with a number of measures – especially those addressing junk food marketing – from early drafts not making it into the final version.

The new proposals include calls on industry to “recognize the harm that adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt can cause.”

NutritionInsight also said that the UK Department of Health and Social Care announced it would consult on introducing new TV and online advertising restrictions to prevent children from being targeted by unhealthy products, and to incentivize companies to reduce the sugar and calories in the products they sell.

Advertising restrictions could include extending the current advertising watershed and considering limiting the number of unhealthy food adverts shown during children’s programs up to 9pm.

Although industry and lobby groups have welcomed the proposals, the FDF notes that there will be deep disquiet in the food and drink manufacturing sector following the announcement.

“Advertising and promotions underpin the healthy, vibrant and innovative market for food and drink that UK shoppers love,” said Tim Rycroft, FDF Director of Corporate Affairs.

“If the government restricts our ability to advertise and promote new healthier options to shoppers, it could risk the success of the reformulation program.

Any further restrictions will have to pass stern tests around targeting and effectiveness.”

Nestlé also highlighted the industry’s voluntary efforts to support the government’s obesity reduction targets and calls for further government-industry collaboration.

“The food industry has been working with government and health organizations for many years, largely on a voluntary basis, to reduce salt, sat fat and calories in products and help people make healthier choices.

The government’s target to halve childhood obesity by 2030 sets a new and welcome level of ambition,” said Stefano Agostini, CEO of Nestle UK & Ireland.

“For my part, I am proud that Nestle UK & Ireland has removed more than 60 billion calories and 2.6 billion teaspoons of sugar from its portfolio in the last three years alone and has much more reformulation and product development to come.

It is our responsibility, one shared with all manufacturers, to provide answers and not simply wait for others to prescribe the solution.”
“We have argued for some time that voluntary action, while absolutely vital, has limitations as well as strengths.

A broader range of measures should be considered to tackle obesity including regulation.”

The company also told NutritionInsight that although there are new technologies that can help tackle obesity, long-term investment by industry, and collaboration between academia, industry and policymakers is still needed.

Nestle’s efforts include the unveiling of a Milkybar with 30% less sugar than similar chocolate products, which was achieved by using new technology that structures sugar differently.

“We believe these measures should be developed on four principles. First and most importantly they should achieve public health objectives.

Second, they should be evidence-based. Third, they should create a level playing field for the entire food industry.

And fourth, they should incentivize investment in research & development, new technologies, and innovations that help tackle obesity,” Agostini noted.

UK lobby group Action on Sugar also welcomed the announcement but stated that “simply consulting about the nation’s biggest public health crisis is not going to save lives.”

“Whilst we welcome Chapter two of the government’s childhood obesity plan, it clearly lacks firm commitment and only promises consultations by the end of the year,” said Professor Graham MacGregor, Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt.

“What’s missing is a fully joined up action based campaign which includes: uniform traffic light labels on out of home food rather than just calorie labeling, mandatory reformulation on sugar and calories, a tax on confectionery or unhealthy food with the opportunity to reformulate and only healthy products (not high in fat, salt and sugar) should be marketed across all platforms, including TV, digital and print marketing,” MacGregor concludes.