A food industry panel chaired by former UK cabinet minister Michael Portillo has warned that the UK drive to cut sugar and salt levels in food and drink risks being undermined by larger portion sizes.
Portillo animated a debate yesterday at FoodEx 2014 in Birmingham, UK, called ‘A View From Above’, which explored pressing industry issues that touched on the row over sugar levels in soft drinks.
The UK media and health groups have devoted increasing column inches to slamming sugar levels in soft drinks over the last couple of years.
For instance, last month a US study by Yang et al. for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published in JAMA Internal Medicine found an association between soda drinking and heart disease, and was widely reported by the UK press.
‘Politicians globally are going to take sugar and salt very seriously’ – Portillo
Portillo warmed up by discussing the UK horse meat scandal that broke in January 2013: “But what I think is much more worrying for the food and drinks industry is the coming war on sugar and salt – I think politicians globally are going to take sugar and salt very, very seriously," he said.
“It’s maybe going to be a pincer action anyway. A lot of consumers worry about sugar, salt and other additives. And I think what the market doesn’t do as consumers change their habits, then governments worldwide will do.
“It will be a bit like smoking bans, which are happening around the world. One government will take comfort from another government is taking action in this field," the journalist and broadcaster added.
Portillo said a ‘bourgeoisification’ of the UK working class – which he said was adopting middle-class habits – meant a growing interest in cooking and the provenance of food.
“So I do think the British consumer is going to become much more interested in healthy eating, but probably not quickly enough for the British government – I can see regulations, taxes, other market interventions to cut salt and sugar in foods," said.
‘People need to understand what a portion is’
We asked Portillo’s panel if moves by industry to cut salt and sugar levels might not be undermined by an apparent increase in UK food and beverage serving sizes in some quarters.
Panel member Sara Autton, who chairs the British Society of Baking, told BeverageDaily.com: “On portion sizes, I think the old adage of ‘when America sneezes, we catch a cold’ rings true here.
“Our portion sizes tend to follow on from what happens in America, and I think that it’s a huge issue. Labeling in terms of calorific value is important – but people need to understand what a portion is and should be in terms of calorific value,” she added.
“I think portion sizes should be driven down – but I think the cost of commodities will do that anyway. Mars bars aren’t getting any bigger! But a portion of protein shouldn’t be any bigger than the palm of your hand – that’s about the size of 140g of fish, or 100g of steak,” Autton said.
Discussing the horse meat scandal, Portillo said that problems regarding adulteration of food in the UK tend to be taken care of thanks to market forces.
“The horse meat scandal was an absolute disaster for Tesco, for Findus and some other participants. But the UK has a very concentrated food distribution sector, with a few giants,” he said.
“One upside of this is that the supermarkets do have the power to exercise an extraordinary level of control [on the supply chain] and on the whole do so," Portillo added.