The long awaited policy package from Public Health England (PHE) and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) broadens the government approach, which has previously focused on sugar and salt reduction, to include overall calorie content.
According to PHE and DHSC, this shift reflects evidence included in a report released today (6 March) that overweight boys and girls consume up to 500 and 290 calories a day too many respectively.
PHE data also reveals UK adults consume an average of 200-300 calories more than needed each day. The departments are also targeting adult calorie consumption through the latest One You health campaign, which encourages adults to focus on calorie consumption. One You urges people to eat 400 calories for breakfast, and 600 for lunch and dinner.
“The 20% reduction target is the result of analysis of the new calorie consumption data, experience of sugar and salt reduction programmes, and more than 20 meetings with the food industry and stakeholders,” Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, explained.
Challenge to the industry
Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, said that the new policy is challenging the food sector to take definitive action on calorie reduction across a range of products.
“The simple truth is on average we need to eat less. Children and adults routinely eat too many calories and it’s why so many are overweight or obese,” Selbie commented.
“Industry can help families by finding innovative ways to lower the calories in the food we all enjoy and promoting UK business leadership on the world stage in tackling obesity.”
According to figures from PHE and the DHSC, the NHS already spends around £6bn a year treating obesity related problems, including type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. The societal cost in terms of absenteeism is adds to the economic toll, PHE and DHSC added.
The government has called on the food industry to cut the calorie content of foods through product reformulation, portion size reduction and the promotion of lower calorie products.
Categories covered by the programme include pizzas, ready meals, pre-made sandwiches, meat products and savoury snacks.
If the 20% target is met within five years, more than 35,000 premature deaths could be prevented and around £9bn in NHS healthcare and social care costs could be saved over a 25 year period, the government stressed.
“There can be no doubt that obesity is now one of our greatest challenges - one that is fuelling an epidemic of preventable illnesses like type 2 diabetes and cancer. These not only shorten lives but put unsustainable pressure on our health service,” Steve Brine, Public Health and Social Care Minister, said.
“Our calorie reduction programme – the first of its kind from any country in the world – will continue to build on the progress of our world-leading childhood obesity plan, which has led to positive steps by industry.”
FDF flags progress
A spokesperson for the FDF stressed that its member companies have already made significant progress in their efforts to reformulate.
"Over the past five years FDF members have reduced energy in the average shopping basket by 5.5% and sugars by 12.1%. During the lifetime of the latest salt targets (2012 to 2017) our members have reduced salt by a further 11.4%, continuing to build on more than 15 years of steady reformulation work.
"This has been done through a mixture of challenging reformulation and reducing portion sizes. In addition, FDF members’ led the way with a voluntary 250 kcal cap on individually wrapped, single-serve confectionery items sold in retail has resulted in calorie reductions of between 10% and 15%."
According to PHE nutritionist Dr Tedstone, the next step in the programme is to develop category guidelines.
In order to deliver this ambition, regulators will engage with the “whole food industry”, including retailers, manufacturers and major restaurant, café, takeaway and delivery companies. PHE will also discuss priorities with health and charity sectors, she noted.
The guidelines will be published in mid-2019, Dr Tedstone revealed.
The Food and Drink Federation, which represents UK food manufacturers, welcomed the new policy and insisted that it looks forward to cooperating with PHE in the development of the programme.
“FDF has long advocated an approach to tackling obesity which looks beyond individual nutrients and instead primarily focuses on calories,” FDF director general Ian Wright said.
“It’s encouraging too to see that the government’s renewed focus looks not just at the food and drink bought for consumption at home, but also at takeaways, restaurants and cafés. To be successful in improving the nation’s health, it is also vital that this work delivers appropriate, clear and easily understandable calorie messages for shoppers and consumers.”
Health campaigners at Action on Sugar also applauded the ambition of the government’s announcement but questioned how the 20% reduction target would be monitored and enforced.
Graham MacGregor, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar, said that this could be a “groundbreaking” campaign.
However, he continued: “In order for it to be successful, it is imperative that the 20% calorie reduction targets are properly enforced and transparent. We also need clear guidance from government on what will happen if the food industry fails to comply, as it is vital that the industry is given a level-playing field and all companies, both retail and out of home, fully cooperate.”
Fat in focus
The new policy is likely to place increased focus on fat reduction, particularly in categories like pizzas, ready meals and savoury snacks.
Leatherhead head of nutrition and product development Jenny Arthur predicted that this will accelerate trends which have seen consumers look for lower fat or calorie options in everyday foods, rather than specifically in diet food options.
“With fats contributing around 9 kcal/g, identifying appropriate fat replacers will be a priority for many. Fat reduction to lower calories has been on the health agenda of the food industry for some time. Previously there have been so called ‘diet ranges’ with lower fat levels, however increasingly consumers are looking for healthier everyday foods which are lower in fat and calories,” she suggested.
Possible ingredient solutions include carbohydrate-based fat mimetics.
Maltodextrins, polydextroses, microcrystalline celluloses, starches, fibres and gums can contribute 0 to 4 kcal/g. They can absorb water, add volume, thicken and stabilise products, as well as being able to create properties that mimic those of fats.
However, they can also impact products’ appearance, texture, oral breakdown, flavour delivery, as well as stability and microbiological safety.
Leatherhead’s Arthur believes that the calorie drive could support the development of new options. “The 2024 calorie reduction target could accelerate the development of new technologies. Products such as mayonnaise have benefited from the emergence of 'water-in-oil-in-water' emulsions to reduce calories, and we may see more innovations in a similar vein.”