In a report entitled “Changing behaviour: Childhood Nutrition” the author calls on the government to force manufacturers to lower the fat, sugar and salt content in products and/or more clearly label high fat, sugary, salty foods.
Education was also high on the agenda with proposals to introduce parenting programmes that focus on the role of food, nutrition, malnutrition, obesity and the promotion of healthy eating, exercise and a positive relationship with food.
“It is time to face the challenge of legislation for food production and provision, and to fund interventions for schools and parents,” said author of the report, Jane Ogden, professor of health psychology at University of Surrey.
“Legislation and structural changes involving working with the food industry and government intervention; parenting programmes to encourage a healthier home environment and school-based interventions to change children’s beliefs about food and their food preferences directly.”
Fat and salt not the focus
Professor Ogden’s assertions that behaviour changes can only be achieved via legislation and pricing suggest a lack of confidence in the self-regulatory stance preferred by the food industry.
Whilst a sugar tax has been introduced in countries like France, Hungary and Norway no such levy exists for controlling levels of fat and salt in foods.
The onus is on food manufacturers to gradually reformulate popular products, finding a balance between taste and cost, without incurring the wrath of the consumer.
But the pressure on industry is increasing. In June, The European Council of Health Ministers urged Member States to submit national plans by the end of this year to improve food composition.
Meanwhile, the UK government set salt targets for 2017 lowering the current average of around 8g per day to 6g for adults.
All this action would have a significant effect on childhood nutrition, the report said as it set out recommendations for the food industry that also include changing food labelling and banning fizzy sugary drinks and snacks from school vending machines.
Supermarkets were also urged to change food displays (i.e. location of sweets, fizzy drinks) and food pricing initiatives, which encourage overeating (i.e. meal deals).
“Such interventions would reduce mindless eating outside the home and ensure that more mindful food choices were made concerning what foods to bring into the home environment,” said Professor Ogden.
“To date the UK government has recommended that the food industry behave more responsibly but is yet to enforce this through legislation.”
Food marketing and advertising
The report also called for a limit on food advertising—currently a voluntary exercise for the food industry—which the report identified as an example of the “obesogenic environment” children were now living in.
The Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) recently called on the UK government to close existing loopholes to restrict children’s exposure to junk food marketing across all media, including on TV prior to the 9pm watershed.
Current regulations overseen by The Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), a self-regulatory body, ban child-targeted adverts for food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) shown on non-broadcast media, social media, print, posters and cinema.
The regulations are relevant to all media where children make up a quarter of the audience. Advertisers are also restricted in their use of characters or celebrities if the content is marketed at children under the age of 12 years old.
The industry might argue that it has taken steps to address this issue. The EU Pledge—an initiative that promotes responsible food marketing to children—recently welcomed Arla to its ranks.
The pledge, which already boasts Nestlé, Unilever, Mondelez, Mars and Coca-Cola among its members, recently extended its scope towards radio, cinema, DVD/CD-ROM, direct marketing, product placement, interactive games, apps, mobile and SMS marketing.