The UK is heading for a season of discontent. Prices are skyrocketing, potential blackouts are looming, utilities are collapsing, and soon there will be no more three-for-two deals on Quality Street.
Restrictions on multi-buy promotions for unhealthy foods are set to start in England in a year, part of a series of anti-obesity measures pushed by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Scotland and Wales are planning their own versions. Yet Johnson’s government had already delayed England’s reforms by a year from 2022 and his short-lived successor, Liz Truss, has floated the idea that they could be scrapped altogether.
As the economy flounders, with particular pressure on low-income households, moves to cut promotions and advertising for foods high in fat, salt and sugar are easily described as Scrooge. A new administration struggling with double-digit inflation might be tempted to roll them back or delay them indefinitely. It would be a mistake.
The new rules include limits introduced this year on where unhealthy food can be placed in stores, as well as planned restrictions on TV and digital advertising, multi-buy offers and soft drink refills. The food industry sees them as a gratuitous assault on the cost of living – as well as their own profits.
The companies point, for example, to data prepared for Public Health England indicating that without supermarket promotions, a typical household would have to pay £634 more a year for the same food. Restrictions on placement of unhealthy foods near store entrances, checkouts and aisle ends will also cut into manufacturers’ profits, reducing the discounts they are able to offer on their ranges, executives say.
Yet activists point to how food marketing is currently steering shoppers towards junk food. Cancer Research UK has found that the promotions are biased towards unhealthy categories, while shoppers who take advantage of them suffer from unhealthy diets.
Henry Dimbleby, who produced a food journal for the government, argued that the human tendency to seek out quick calories has combined with the pursuit of profit to produce a “junk food cycle”. Companies seeking to appeal to consumer palates are investing in the development and large-scale marketing of high-calorie foods, which lowers costs compared to more nutritious dishes. The households most vulnerable to the overconsumption of these products are those with low incomes.
Food makers say the planned changes will have little impact on obesity. It is true that the government’s impact assessment for each of its anti-obesity measures predicts average daily calorie reductions for individuals in the single digits.
Yet these figures do not take into account the disproportionate effect of obesity and measures to combat it on specific and vulnerable segments of society. They also do not take into account future effects on children whose eating habits may be set while they are young.
Pressure from governments and investors has already prompted food companies to offer healthier products. Brands ranging from Mr Kipling’s cakes to Walkers crisps have launched low fat, salt and sugar ranges as junk food restrictions approach. New products from big brands use cutting-edge technology and are watched closely around the world, said Anthony Fletcher, founder of Urban Legend, a maker of low-sugar donuts.
Chocolate is more delicate. Attempts to produce low-sugar chocolate have so far proved almost as short-lived as Liz Truss’ premiership. But regulation will encourage the development of healthier packaged foods and push companies to promote them. An excess of bargain-basement treats will not solve a shameful and growing problem of malnutrition.
Government measures to reduce the amount of salt in foods, combined with the threat of law enforcement, dramatically reduced the salt in bread in the early 2000s. The change in taste was too gradual for the palate people notice, and research has shown that thousands of lives have been saved.
Today, moving away from junk food is crucial to tackling obesity, which already costs health services an estimated £6.5billion a year and causes human misery to escalate. A government reluctant to take “nanny state” measures will instead end up with even more healthcare costs.
As low-income households grapple with a precipitous drop in living standards, a few relatively healthy bargains are the least a new administration can offer them. Food brands may complain, but they are up to the challenge.
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