Food industry told to cut calories to tackle obesity

In collaboration with the Press Association

A plan to lower obesity levels by reducing calories in many foods has been announced. 

Public Health England (PHE) wants to cut the number of calories in common foods by 20% over the next 6 years. 

“These targets can make a big difference as we've already seen with the sugary drinks tax.” – Alison Cox, Cancer Research UK

Alison Cox, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer prevention, welcomed the move and said it’s vital that the government continues to put pressure on the food industry.

“Scientific evidence shows that being overweight or obese is the UK’s biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking, and is linked to 13 different types of the disease,” said Cox.

Around two thirds of UK adults are overweight or obese

How will the plan work?

PHE has challenged the food industry to cut the number of calories by 20% by 2024 in 13 food categories. These significantly contribute to children’s calorie intake and include ready meals, pizzas, savoury snacks and ‘on-the-go’ deals.

The plan is targeted at manufacturers, restaurants, retailers and takeaway services. Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said the aim is to give the public the information they need to help make healthy choices easier.

The industry has three ways to reduce calories:

  1. Change recipes
  2. Reduce portion sizes
  3. Encourage consumers to pick lower calorie products

The announcement comes on top of plans to reduce levels of sugar by 20% across the top 9 categories of food that contribute most to children’s intake, and an upcoming tax on drinks with high sugar content.

PHE found that overweight or obese children are consuming up to 500 more calories a day than is recommended. For overweight and obese adults, the figure was around 300 calories a day. 

More than 35,000 premature deaths could be prevented if the 20% calorie target is met within 5 years, according to the plan. PHE said lowering obesity levels could save around £9 billion in NHS healthcare and social care costs over a 25-year period.

Guidance for specific food categories will be published next year after PHE has collected opinions on the plan from health and industry groups. 

Professor Russell Viner, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said several factors contribute to eating too many calories. 

“In particular the creep in portion sizes we’ve seen over the last 40 years; our food portions, particularly pizzas and hamburgers, are simply much bigger than they were in our parent’s time. The availability of fast food at pocket money prices and the advertising of unhealthy food and drink to children add to the problem, as does the lack of nutritional labelling, particularly on out-of-home products.”

“These targets can make a big difference as we've already seen with the sugary drinks tax,” said Cox. 

She also called on the government to curb junk food TV adverts before 9pm to protect young people from the constant promotion of unhealthy foods.

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