Food manufacturers may be slashing levels of salt, fat and sugar in their products as they come under mounting pressure to make their products healthier, but the best way to keep it successful is to keep things low-key, said MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine.
Kellogg’s reduced salt in its cornflakes for example (Kellogg’s cereals now have 50% less salt than they did a decade ago) but no one noticed, he said. “It’s a brilliant health policy. A vast number of people don’t know so it has had no impact.
“Consumers go on buying the same food and yet their salt intake falls,” he said.
And since consumers prefer buying the same food products, calling on them to change their diets might not work either. Improving the foods available to them instead could be the principal route to healthier lifestyles. “Imagine a mother with two young children buying food at a supermarket. She will buy the same foods instead of first choosing a product with less salt and then another with less sugar and so forth,” he said.
Food industry is killing us
“The food industry can’t go on selling rubbish…we can’t let it kill us,” said MacGregor adding that manufacturing companies were “messing around” with health claims as they were not being properly monitored.
For example, Coke Life (89 calories)may have introduced a naturally sourced sweetener but it hasn’t helped consumers who shifted to it from Coke Zero (0 calories), as it has increased their calorie intake, he said.
The answer then, lies in a strong and independent agency to monitor the food industry and create a level playing field, he claims. “The food industry is doing things on its own and it is not working well. It will need to come together if reformulation is to work effectively.”
Current voluntary policies such as the Responsibility Deal in the UK (where organisations commit to play their part in improving public health), have not had any effect on calorie intake on a public health scale said a report by Action on Sugar on Childhood Obesity Action Plan.
“There is no reason why more healthy food, without the current large amounts of sugar, saturated fat and salt, cannot be…profitable, but it requires a very forceful government with strong leadership to bring about a sea-change in the philosophy of the whole soft drink and food industry,” it added.
Success with salt
“The UK has led the world in salt reduction and it can do the same with sugar and oils,” said MacGregor.
The salt reduction programme in the UK under the Food Standards Agency worked because the agency provided also managed to create a level playing field. Where each company knew that the others were going to have to do the same, he said. Though this could be more difficult with reducing fats and sugars in products, it was still essential that punitive measures were in place if and when the food industry did not comply, he added.
A statement by Consensus Action on Salt and Health said that the current target for the UK is to reduce salt intake to an average of 6g a day for adults from the current average of 8.1g a day. This reduction could have a large impact on reducing strokes by approximately 22% and heart attacks by 16% saving 17,000 lives in the UK, it added.