It comes amid fresh claims that “confusing” health labels are fuelling childhood obesity and that stricter regulations on food labelling and product content are needed.
A study in Archives of Disease in Childhood criticised the “natural” sugars in fruit products, often preferred by health-conscious parents. It said that the body shows no such discrimination and these drinks and sweets have the “same negative effect on weight gain as other forms of sugar”.
“Prepacked foods targeted to children can be consumed as part of a ‘balanced and healthy’ diet, yet their health and nutrition claims remain questionable. Given the current rising rates of childhood obesity, the consumption of less healthy foods may have long term negative implications on child health,” wrote the researchers.
“Stricter regulations on product composition, food labelling, and marketing techniques are required to discourage the promotion of foods which might be considered obesogenic,” they concluded.
But Watkins said that measures such as labelling restrictions, a sugar tax and curbs on junk food advertising foods are ‘sticking plaster solutions’ unlikely to solve the UK's childhood obesity epidemic.
The problems of sedentariness and lack of time risk being overlooked, he argued. “I don’t think these things will drive the behavioural changes required. It is understandable but misguided to focus on just one area,” he told FoodNavigator.
'Society has sped up… digital has replaced what was physical'
Socioeconomic changes over the last few generations mean that it is harder for people to maintain a healthy lifestyle, he said. He believes a holistic approach is needed to educate people of all ages about nutrition and the role of exercise in a healthy lifestyle.
“People have far less time to do things, which is why people are going for convenience over health. If we can equip people with the ability to be able to cook from scratch that would help people to realise there are alternatives and that they don’t have to buy processed food or fast food.”
Over the last few generations, he said, “the economy has shifted to a much more sedentary set of professions and that impacts the amount of calories people take in on a given day.” He also cited a reduction in the amount of exercise and PE classes at schools with a focus on academics and school results.
“This is a lot more complicated than saying ‘you need a sugar tax’ or ‘you need to restrict where you place stuff in the super market’. I don’t think these things will drive the behavioural changes required. It’s got to be holistic solutions – we can’t just focus on input and not the output of calories. Increasingly sedentary lifestyles means people are no longer burning the calories they once were.”
This ties with another new study on sedentary behaviour and healthcare costs, led by Leonie Heron of Queen's University Belfast, UK, and published in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health, which revealed that nearly 50,000 people in Britain die each year from diseases related to sitting down too much.
“We need to look at how we equip people in a society where technical has replaced digital in lots of ways with the skills to be able to cook quick meals that are nutritious and with the confidence to do that at a price point that’s affordable during a time of austerity, food inflation and Brexit which is all resulting in food prices going up,” added Watkins. “And simultaneously we should be encouraging people to do more exercise. Beating up the food industry is not the way to achieve it.”
Food industry defends record on labelling
Responding to the Archives of Disease in Childhood study, Kate Halliwell from the Food and Drink Federation, said that most food companies are going beyond their legal obligations in providing nutritional information on packaging.
“Companies have a legal obligation to tell their customers what is in their food, and provide ingredients lists and nutrition information per 100 grams on pack. The vast majority of companies go beyond this and voluntarily provide simple nutrition information on the front of pack usually based on what a recommended portion would contain,” she said.