Which? rounds on food industry in health debate

By Sarah Hills

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Nutrition

Consumer watchdog Which? has renewed its calls for food manufacturers and retailers to do more to address sugar, salt and fat content and take a consistent, industry-wide approach to labelling to help people make healthily choices.

Positive progress has been made to cut the amount of salt and trans fats in food, but the industry has been slower in addressing saturated fat and sugar levels, particularly in drinks with added sugar, said the “Hungry For Change?”​ report.

The study reviews action taken over the last five years in response to escalating rates of obesity and diet-related disease, focusing on the 12 demands Which? made to government and industry in 2004, with practical steps that could address the problem.

It concluded that labelling remains a problem as manufacturers continue to use “irresponsible claims”​, misleading consumers into buying something promoted as healthy when it is high in fat, sugar or salt.

And a lack of consistency over nutrient labelling is “creating confusion”​ as while some manufacturers have adopted the traffic light labelling scheme, others are using the GDA, or guideline daily amount, initiative.

It also goes so far as suggesting tax reductions to lower the price of healthier foods and increasing taxes for foods high in fat, sugar or salt.

Sue Davies Which? chief policy advisor, told FoodNavigator.com: “In the last five years there has been some real changes but the overall massage is that that we’ve got this incredibly huge problem with obesity and diet related disease.

“There should be no excuses for the companies that haven’t taken action and even those who have taken action, don’t get complacent.

“Reformulation is something that industry can do that will have real public health benefits.”

She acknowledged that tackling the saturated fat content in food, for example, may not be straight forward as it still has to taste good, but some companies such as United Biscuits and PepsiCo’s Walkers crisps, have already started this.

Davies added: “Now it’s is about doing it in a co-ordination and concerted way”.

On health claims and labelling, she said that companies should voluntarily make it easier for people to choose healthily, adding: “It is about being more transparent so people can make genuinely informed choices.”

Industry response

The food industry has repeatedly hailed the efforts of its members in delivering healthier food products for consumers – especially as healthier formulations can mean overcoming technical hurdles.

Commenting on the new report Julian Hunt, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation, said: “Our members are helping consumers make healthier choices through a combination of recipe changes, the development of ‘better for you’ options and improved nutrition information on packs.

“Our members will not be distracted from their groundbreaking work in this area, nor will they slow their efforts to keep providing consumers with what they want – nutritious, tasty food at affordable prices.”

Industry responsibility

A Which? survey showed less than half of respondents thought manufacturers made it easy to choose healthier foods and a quarter felt they make it difficult.

It also found that four out of five people wanted to follow a healthy diet but the current economic climate was yet another barrier to good intentions.

Yet government and the food industry “has the power to remove many of the barriers standing in the way”​, according to Which?

Suggested measures include encouraging food companies to produce smaller portions, calling for the use of product positioning to help encourage healthier choices and tackling food marketing techniques, particularly towards children.

Related topics: Reformulation, Market Trends

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