UK innovation agency report sets out future of reformulation recommendations

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/aquaArts studio
Image: Getty/aquaArts studio

Related tags Obesity Diabetes Nutrition

Removing around 216 calories from the daily intake of people who are overweight or obese would set England on a path to halve obesity by 2030, according to research published by the innovation charity Nesta. The analysis found that it is possible to achieve up to a fifth (18%) of the target by ‘stealth’ measures like reformulation.

The report rejected placing responsibility on individuals to cut items from their diet. Instead, it proposed more emphasis on manufacturers making small changes across a large range of commonly consumed food and drinks. “Most people won’t notice any change in the products they consume, but the overall health effect is significant,”​ it said.

According to Nesta’s report, reformulation should focus on foods which lead to the most excess calorie consumption. It identified ten categories which contribute most to calorie consumption: ambient cakes and pastries, chocolate confectionery, everyday biscuits, savoury pastries, morning goods, treats, salad condiments, chilled ready meals, crisps, and chilled cakes.

Nesta’s data analysis claimed to show how reformulating a limited number of everyday food items could make up around a fifth of the total calorie reduction needed per person. Researchers analysed the effects of reducing the calorie content of these food categories by 10% and found that such an intervention would reduce the average person’s calorie intake by 38 calories. This is around twice the effect of the successful Soft Drinks Industry Levy (which is estimated to save 18 calories per day), introduced in 2018, and would remove around 1 billion calories from the national diet per day.

In England 28% of adults (12.6 million people) are obese and a further 36% are overweight. Obesity is linked with significant negative health effects including type 2 diabetes, several types of cancer, heart disease and stroke. A 2022 study estimated the annual cost of adult obesity to UK society at around £54 billion while the NHS spends around £6.5 billion a year on treating obesity related ill health.

To get ‘the UK on the path to addressing the obesity crisis’, the report recommended:

  • Government to set mandated calorie reduction targets for specific food categories that contribute most to excess calorie consumption, alongside incentives like R&D credits;
  • An institution to lead the reformulation efforts, with statutory powers to design, set and monitor targets for calorie reduction by manufacturers and shops, with powers to levy fines where targets aren’t met;
  • Statutory data collection of sales from all retailers, including leading supermarkets, to inform a public ranking of shops on progress in making food categories healthier, as well as provide consumers with more information on which supermarkets are healthiest

Ravi Gurumurthy, chief executive of Nesta, said: “Obesity has doubled in 30 years and that has very little to do with willpower or our personal choices. Over three decades the food and drinks we buy have become bigger, cheaper, and far more calorific.

“We know the mantra of willpower and personal responsibility is a dead end. Reformulating a selected few food categories by a fairly small amount is good value and requires zero effort from the consumer. The success of the sugar tax shows that good policy-making can help cut calorie consumption without affecting taste, price or profits.”

Hugo Harper, director of healthy life at Nesta, said: “It should be easier and cheaper for people to consume fewer calories without making drastic changes to how they shop. We set out to find the easy wins in terms of food categories where small changes could make a bigger difference. To maximise the benefits of changes we focused on popular food and drinks that tend to pack in a lot of calories. Some foods are too difficult or expensive to reformulate, but we know the technology and method exists to make helpful changes to a range of items that are widely consumed. No one measure is enough but this gets us some of the way towards halving obesity - 38 calories is about a fifth of the reduction needed on average among men and about a quarter among women.”

FoodNavigator will be asking what role food innovation should play in delivering healthier products to the mass market during a three day event (29-31 March). Positive Nutrition 2023 will look at the strategies that can be employed to support better population health, from product reformulation to fortification and food as medicine. Check out the agenda and register to attend here​. 

Positive Nutrition 2023
Positive Nutrition 2023

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