How reformulating foods could transform the nation's health

Dry January and Veganuary, laudable though they are, symbolise everything that we get wrong when tackling obesity. When we rely on individuals to summon the willpower to resist temptation, most people fail within weeks. Short-lived changes will not reduce the worrying expansion of our waistlines.

Two-thirds of adults in the UK are now overweight or obese – more than most other European countries. Since 1992, obesity in the UK has doubled. After smoking, obesity has become the main cause of ill health and premature death, costing an estimated £54bn.

So what do we do about it? Even for people who are overweight or living with obesity, only modest but sustained reductions in daily calories are needed. A reduction of 216 calories every day – the equivalent of a 500ml bottle of cola - would halve levels of obesity in the UK by the end of the decade. It is well established that placing responsibility on individuals is not the way to achieve this. Instead, we need food producers and sellers to change their recipes, cooking methods, portion sizes and promotions.

The good news is that we are starting to understand how this approach could work. Our research analysed 29,000 shopping baskets to identify ten food categories that are widely consumed and possible to reformulate. The best targets include biscuits, cakes, chilled ready meals, crisps and salad dressings. Even making small imperceptible changes to these foods, could remove 38 calories per day from our diets – a fifth of our way to the target.

Reformulation will not happen of its own accord, but it can be stimulated by government action. The soft drinks levy, announced in 2016, incentivised most soft drinks to be reformulated to duck under the tax threshold, removing around 18 calories a day from the average person’s daily diet.

We need a similar approach to the 10 food categories we’ve identified. We can begin by setting up a new independent institution charged with stimulating innovation in reformulating food. This new body would define which food categories should be reformulated, set and monitor mandatory targets for industry, as well as fiscal incentives for research and development. Supermarkets and retailers would be forced to share their data on food purchases to inform and monitor reformulation efforts. The data could also be used to create a league table of which supermarkets are best at promoting healthy foods.

A radical reduction in obesity does not require significant public funding, but it does require political will. But here is where an approach based on changing food environments rather than individual lifestyles helps again. Accusations of being a ‘nanny state’ are more accurate when lecturing individuals on what to eat. They are much harder to weaponise when partnering with business to make gradual improvements to food standards.

As the NHS struggles under the strain of growing demand, we cannot rely on treatment alone for better health. We have to prescribe prevention. A national mission, in partnership with the food industry, to halve obesity by 2030, is a feasible ambition.

This piece first appeared in the Times Red Box.


Ravi Gurumurthy

Ravi Gurumurthy

Ravi Gurumurthy

Group Chief Executive Officer

Ravi Gurumurthy is Group Chief Executive Officer, joining Nesta as Chief Executive in December 2019.

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