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The Disraeli Room

The Disraeli Room

Blog Post

Is the food industry always the villain on childhood obesity?

23rd November 2015

Sugar is the new tobacco, and the battle lines are sharpening around Jamie Oliver’s campaign for a sugar tax to be the centrepiece of the Government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy, due out in the New Year.

It’s a no-brainer: the average can of fizzy drink contains nine teaspoons of sugar, two teaspoons more than the new recommended daily intake for an adult, let alone a child. But the Government is in a tight spot on this one: how to be pro-business and still tackle the main causes of obesity head-on?

Appeals to individuals to read up on the ‘Eat Well plate’ and change their behaviour have long since been discredited by the evidence. The lessons of tobacco control applied to sugar, and junk food in general, are that you have to tackle the 3 As: Affordability, Availability, Acceptability. What is needed is a Childhood Obesity Strategy that sets out not just to tax sugar – important as this is – but to change the environment and societal norms that make energy dense, nutrient-poor foods the default choice for every child in this country.

So we come to the second A: Availability. Is the food industry always going to be the enemy on this one? The answer is probably ‘yes’ – put simply, junk food is more profitable than healthy food – ‘but not all of it, and not all of the time’. With the spotlight on supermarkets and Big Food, the role of foodservice is often overlooked, despite the fact that we now consume around a quarter of our calories outside the home. The Soil Association’s Food for Life programme aims to make good food the easy choice for everyone, whoever and wherever they are. Our work has uncovered heroes as well as villains in the foodservice industry.

On the high street it’s a mixed picture. With the help of ‘secret diner’ parents the Soil Association’s Out to Lunch campaign has surveyed children’s menus in 21 high street restaurant chains, launching a league table in 2013 and again in October this year. Meal price was no predictor of the rankings, with Harvester and Wetherspoons taking the no 2 and no 4 slots behind Jamie’s Italian, and Strada languishing just above KFC and Burger King at the bottom. Shockingly, three chains – Pizza Hut, Frankie & Benny’s and Café Rouge – offered free or discounted unlimited refills of sugary drinks on their children’s menus. Just one refill plus an ‘ice cream factory’ dessert at Pizza Hut would take a child seven times over their recommended sugar limit. Other chains are taking children’s health more seriously: prompted by the Out to Lunch campaign, Harvester has taken all sugary drinks off their children’s menu, Prezzo now offers fresh fruit desserts and Giraffe has ditched the chips, improving 5.5 million children’s meals this year.

Children’s food in schools has also been undergoing a quiet revolution, again in no small part thanks to Jamie Oliver’s campaigning genius. Dinner lady Jeanette Orrey inspired Jamie Oliver and helped the Soil Association create the Food for Life Catering Mark, which now certifies over 1.5 million meals a day and has been achieved by over 45% of primary schools in England, the UK’s largest nursery chain Busy Bees, and 30% of universities as well as workplaces ranging from the Scottish Government to Jaguar Landrover. Our annual inspections check that caterers are meeting best practice nutrition standards and reward them for serving fresh, local, sustainable food.

The final A is Acceptability. There’s still more to be done on junk food marketing to children. Shows like Britain’s Got Talent can contain up to 11 unhealthy food adverts per hour, even though they frequently attract child audiences of over a million.

The biggest lever the Government has on Acceptability, however, is schools. The British Medical Association has called for the roll-out of the ‘whole school approach to food’, pioneered by the Food for Life Schools Award, which has been achieved by over 1,000 schools. Food for Life schools get children and their families growing, cooking and enjoying fruit and vegetables and reconnecting with where food comes from. Independent evaluation shows pupils in Food for Life schools are twice as likely to eat their five a day.

So we come full circle back to the case for a Sugar Tax. This is not just about sending out a strong message to consumers and the food industry. A 20 pence per litre tax on sugary drinks would raise an estimated £1 billion, allowing the Government to create a Children’s Health Fund that can help schools make a healthier diet more normal again for young people so they can flourish and achieve their potential. With the spiralling obesity and diabetes epidemic threatening to bankrupt the NHS, this is an opportunity for investment in prevention that the Government can ill-afford to ignore.

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