Major food reformulation should be at the centre of Boris Johnson’s obesity strategy, says new report from Demos

  • New report by think tank Demos is calling on the Government to invest in food innovation, such as reformulating foods, to tackle Britain’s obesity crisis.
  • The research finds that the food market is currently not working for consumers, estimating that 20 million people cannot afford healthy foods.
  • The report has found that the British public are in favour of more interventionist and supportive policies to tackle unhealthy eating.
  • Former Health Secretary Lord Lansley welcomes push for “reformulations which consumers will tolerate, and shifting the balance of affordability away from energy-dense, processed foods”

A new report from Demos [published on 10 August 2020] has found that the food market in the UK is not working for consumers, with too many in the UK facing significant barriers to eating healthy diets. 

Demos is calling on the Government to use money raised from the Sugar Levy, Soft Drinks Industry Levy, and a recommended Harmful Processed Meats Levy, to invest in a new transformative Food and Agriculture Sector Deal. 

Turning the Tables, which explores public attitudes towards healthy eating, estimates that 20 million adults cannot afford healthy foods in the UK, and that 19 million cannot find healthy foods available in shops close to their home. A new Sector Deal would accelerate research and development in reformulating food on a much greater scale than seen before, to make them healthier and more cost-effective for consumers.

The research has also found, through a survey of 1,000 UK adults, that the British public are in favour of more interventionist policies to tackle unhealthy eating, particularly ones that are supportive of healthy eating. Almost three quarters of people (71%) would support government subsidies that make healthy foods cheaper. Almost half (47%) would support additional taxes on unhealthy foods.

The report also finds:

  • The three main drivers that consumers say push them towards unhealthy foods are: taste (43%), cost (34%) and ease (34%). These must be at the forefront of policymakers’ minds when considering food interventions.
  • The majority (59%) of people would support requiring all grocery shops to stock healthy foods.
  • Just under half (45%) of people would support standardised packaging on unhealthy foods – similar to approaches taken on cigarette packaging. 
  • A further four in ten (43%) would support banning unhealthy foods on public transport and slightly fewer (37%) would support banning foods in public places.

In addition to industry innovation, the report also argues making it harder to sell unhealthy foods is a vital part of encouraging the market to shift towards producing healthier foods. 

Demos is calling for the Government to introduce a levy on nitrite-cured processed meats, which the World Health Organisation have linked directly to bowel cancer.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Rose Lasko-Skinner, Researcher at Demos and Turning the Tables author said:

“Boris Johnson’s strategy to crackdown on obesity is a welcome step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough in tackling root causes of obesity – many of which lie in our food sector, rather than with retailers. Our research shows there is an opportunity for the Government to be even bolder, and pioneers for a new era of food innovation.

“By stimulating groundbreaking innovation in the food sector, the Government could make food healthier, more affordable and provide better choices for consumers, whilst supporting the workforce in the recovery from Covid-19. With the political will to make it happen, it has the potential to transform the health of people in Britain from all walks of life.

In his foreword for the report, Conservative Peer and former Secretary of State for Health, Lord Lansley, said:

“Efforts at reformulating foods and promoting healthier options have had some successes: reducing salt and trans-fats, the sugary drinks levy, calorie labelling, supporting fresh foods in corner shops. But the overall impact has been insufficient and the polarisation of debate between those who see this as an issue of liberty and those who want to bring in the ‘Ban on Unhealthy Foods Act’ has too often hindered worthwhile progress.

“That is why I welcome this report, which rightly lays emphasis on understanding public opinion and proven consumer preferences, to identify which interventions will gather public support and generate the right response. This means promoting information and choice, pushing hard for the reformulations which consumers will tolerate, and shifting the balance of affordability away from energy-dense, processed foods high in sugar and fats, and towards fresh foods and ingredients.”

The report also recommends:

  • The Government should launch a new fund for the development of lab-grown meat or meat alternatives.
  • The Government should subsidise healthy foods that are already low in price, such as tins of tomatoes, carrots and frozen vegetables to make healthy options much cheaper.
  • The Government should change its approach to fast-food restaurants to be more supportive of their transition to healthier foods rather than getting rid of them. Local working groups should work with local consumer representatives, local experts and industry experts to provide fast-food restaurants with grants and expertise to adapt or reformulate their menus over time without incurring extra costs or losing their consumer base.
  • The Government should work with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) to change the packaging of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), modelled on the packaging changes made to tobacco goods, to make them less appealing to consumers. 

-ENDS-

NOTES TO EDITORS

Media Contact

Josh Tapper, Communications Officer, Demos

Email: [email protected]

About Demos

Demos is Britain’s leading cross-party think-tank: an independent, educational charity, which produces original and innovative research.