UK kicks off calorie reduction dialogue as childhood obesity rate rises

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Ready meals, pizzas and savoury snacks are among the products targeted in calorie reduction push ©iStock
Ready meals, pizzas and savoury snacks are among the products targeted in calorie reduction push ©iStock
The UK’s health authorities have commenced a collaborative effort with the food industry and health NGOs to develop the next phase of the government’s proposed calorie reduction programme.

As part of its obesity strategy, which aims to halve childhood obesity by 2030, the government has outlined an ambition to achieve a 20% calorie reduction by 2024 across the food categories that it says contribute the most to children’s diets. Public Health England met with key stakeholders this week, including retailers, packaged food makers and public health NGOs, to discuss progressing toward this goal.

In meetings held on Tuesday and Wednesday (9-10 October), PHE said that it was “encouraged​” by the “strong turnout​” of the out of home sector, which is made up of quick service restaurants, coffee shops, pub chains and other food service providers. In previous talks, out of home suppliers had been under-represented and PHE said that higher numbers point to an “increase in engagement and commitment​” from this sector.

Details of the meetings emerged as PHE revealed figures suggesting obesity among year six children (10-11 years-old) has reached an all-time high. The rate of “severe obesity”​ among this age group has increased by more than a third since 2006 to 2007 to 4.2%, according to the latest data from the national child measurement programme (NCMP). This is the “highest rate ever​”, PHE stressed.

The nationwide study found 34.3% of year six children are overweight or obese, compared to 31.6% in 2006-7.

The NCMP results again flagged a socio-economic divide. In the most deprived areas, 12.8% of children entering school at the age of four are obese, compared to 5.7% in the least deprived areas.

Commenting on the findings, Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “These continuing high rates of childhood obesity, combined with widening health inequalities, highlight why government is taking bold steps to tackle this crisis.”

The next big challenge: Excess calories

Under pressure from the government’s childhood obesity strategy and the introduction of a sugar levy on soft drinks earlier this year, the food sector has made some progress in reformulating to reduce the levels of sugar in food.

In May, PHE published its year one progress report, which detailed a 2% sugar reduction in food products came in below its 5% target. PHE revealed the out of home sector and categories like puddings are being “encouraged to increase efforts​”.

While PHE praised progress on sugar this week, the health body has now turned its attention to overall calorie reduction.

“Excess calories is the next big challenge for the food industry to improve the food we all consume,”​ said PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie. “This is the promising start we need to succeed in reducing calories in the foods included in the programme by 20%.”

Ready meals, pizzas and savoury snacks are among the products targeted.

As with PHE’s sugar reduction programme, engagement with industry and stakeholders will continue and PHE has encouraged the food industry and its trade bodies to keep an open dialogue.

Dr Tedstone stressed it was “encouraging to see many companies in the room”​.

“We’ve heard initial responses from a range of businesses and NGOs. Over the next few months, we expect further feedback to inform the development of the work on these categories, and PHE’s door remains open for more discussions.”

Industry guidelines with final baselines and targets for all the categories of the calorie programme will be published next year, a PHE spokesperson told FoodNavigator.

“It is worth noting that the proposals are just that – proposals. These are the start of ongoing conversations and debate,”​ the spokesperson added.

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