Cuts of around 216 calories through reformulation would halve obesity, charity says

The reformulation of 10 common food categories can have a significant impact on the UK’s health, new research from innovation charity Nesta, has found.

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 charity. The analysis finds that it is possible to achieve up to a fifth (18%) of the target by ‘stealth’ measures like reformulation.

Halving the prevalence of obesity in the UK would return it to a rate last seen in England in 1992 when it was around 14%. Getting back to 1992 levels of prevalence across the UK would return a cost saving to the NHS of around £3.25 billion per year.

Cutting 216 calories from a daily diet is the equivalent of a 500ml bottle of cola. Nesta said “most people won’t notice any change in the products they consume” with reformulation across a large range of commonly consumed food and drinks, but the overall health effect is significant.

Data analysis shows 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 10 suitable 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 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.

To get the UK on the path to addressing the obesity crisis, the report recommends:

  • 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: “Halving obesity is a significant but achievable challenge. The number of people living with 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.

“There is a compelling case for the Government to invest seriously in prevention. The NHS is under dreadful strain, partly due to capacity and investment but also because of demand. Prevention and capacity will need to be the twin pillars of public service restoration.

“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.”

The analysis conservatively estimates that these modest changes to popular food categories would return around 300,000 quality adjusted life years (QALYs), using current models, to the British population over a 25-year period. HM Treasury estimates that a single quality adjusted life year is valued at around £70,000.

Reformulation is one way to improve nutritional value or reduce calorie content by changing the processing or ingredients of food or drink. The future of food: opportunities to improve health through reformulation is based on new analysis of shopping baskets of more than 29,000 British households from 2021. Nesta’s data science team set out to identify which food categories are most suited to reformulation using three indicators: impact on diet; feasibility of reformulation; and inclusion across income groups. The indicators were then combined into a single metric of reformulation suitability.

Based on calculations for a sample of around 6,000 individuals, Nesta’s analysis on halving the prevalence of obesity by 2030 found that on average men who are overweight or obese in England need to cut 241 calories from their daily intake, while women who are overweight or obese need to cut 190 calories, with an overall average of 216 calories. Public Health England has previously calculated the excess calorie intakes for children and adults, but Nesta’s research is the first to calculate the calorie reduction needed to reach specific obesity reduction goals at population level.

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.”

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