New research by the Nuffield Department of Population Health (NDPH) isn’t exactly scathing however you can’t mistake the conclusion – the UK’s top ten food companies have made limited changes to the healthiness of their products in response to Public Health England’s (PHE) voluntary reformulation targets. The only exception is sugar reduction in soft drinks.
Research published in the open access journal PLOS ONE evaluates foods produced by the top ten food and beverage companies over a four year period and recommends further policy action for consumers to eat more healthily.
Dr Lauren Bandy and colleagues at the University of Oxford’s NDPH identified the top ten UK food and drink manufacturers and their brands and used an established nutrient profile model to look at the nutrient composition data for each item for four consecutive years – 2015, 16, 17 and 18.
They found no change in the nutrient profiling score of products over time, though one company, Kelloggs, showed a small overall improvement, driven by reducing sugar in two products: Coco-pops and Special K. There was a small increase in the number of products classified as healthy: 46 per cent in 2015 to 47 per cent in 2018, and an increase in sales that were considered healthy: 44 per cent in 2015 to 51 per cent in 2018.
Dr Lauren Bandy of the University of Oxford’s Nuffield Department of Population Health says meaningful change is not possible “without more policy action and a transparent monitoring and evaluation system.”
She adds: “The current focus on voluntary, single-nutrient reformulation targets might want to be reconsidered by policy makers.”
So what can be done? Two guiding lights shine brightly, according to the research. The first is the drinks levy. It is held up as an example of success, which, because it is a mandatory measure, translates into advances in reformulation and prompted a reduction in the consumption of sugary drinks.
The second is the case study of government-led nutritional strategies in Chile via a package of policies that include mandatory front-of-package warning labels on unhealthy foods and beverages, restrictions on child-targeted marketing of these foods and beverages, and a ban on sales of unhealthy foods and beverages in schools.
Post-implementation, there were significant declines in purchases of calories, sugar, saturated fat and sodium, driven by reduction in purchases of unhealthy foods and beverages.
The declines are held up as a big deal, particularly as several countries followed suit.
Many countries continue to put HFSS under scrutiny and the pressure on industry to reformulate products will only increase. It is essential that governments and industries continue to invest in new technologies and develop innovative reformulation methods and sugar and salt substitutes. Yet, the health concerns that we are seeking to help address with labels are complex problems, and they require the support of all for a solution. We can listen to arguments, review the evidence, make a comparison between laws and regulatory frameworks etc. Inevitably, there is no universal approach at present that can take into account national context, cultures and dietary needs and recommendations.
The study is highly valuable and if presented in a consumer friendly fashion could lead to greater consumer understanding of the work that is, or is not, being undertaken by the food and drink industry.
- Rodney Jack, editor, Food & Drink Technology.
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