If we want Britain to be healthier then we have to work with the food industry. Supermarket retailers can help us test and scale changes to transform our food system.
Many of the factors driving unhealthy weight gain and rising obesity in the UK are linked to what we call the ‘food environment’. This is the food that we’re exposed to on a daily basis, the everyday products we find accessible, convenient and affordable.
Last year UK consumers spent £254bn on food, drink and catering and close to 4 million people are employed in food manufacturing, wholesaling, retail and non-residential catering. It’s a huge sector and a powerful industry - the major players have the ear of government, the opinions of their corporate leaders make the news, and the products they make and sell have a huge influence on the quality of our daily lives.
Understandably, those of us who want to make positive changes to health and food environments can be hesitant or critical about working with an industry that has such a powerful gatekeeper position.
A degree of scepticism is healthy and of course big retailers' primary incentive is to make profits for shareholders. So why would Nesta be in the market to collaborate?
Collaboration always means trade-offs but the prize for us is access to scale at a national level. The food industry holds an enormous amount of power, day-to-day reach and influence over what we eat and drink and that’s precisely why we’re interested in working together to achieve the huge changes that are needed to improve our health.
We want to act as an innovation partner, to work with entrepreneurs and established businesses to design, test and scale potential solutions. In practice, this means partnering with the businesses committed to making positive change whilst accepting the existing incentive system and commercial realities of a sector that needs to protect profits in a low margin industry.
Obesity is the public health challenge of our generation, a serious health condition that increases the risk of diabetes, stroke, cancer and heart disease. There are lots of different reasons why a person’s diet, or an individual foodstuff, could be considered healthy or unhealthy. It could be due to salt or fat or excess sugar - but at Nesta we’re focused on how our overall diet, as a nation, drives obesity. We want to work with industry to find ways to increase the healthiness of the average basket sold to consumers and make it easier and cheaper to choose healthier options.
We know that an emphasis on personal behaviour is unhelpful - this is a systemic problem. And the way to drive change through a system is to use measures that are quantifiable and measurable in real-world environments (like a supermarket) - that way we can see what works and what doesn’t, create achievable and visible goals, track progress and hold the food industry to account.
Undoubtedly, much of the food and drink sold in the UK is responsible for a huge proportion of national ill-health, but we want to avoid characterising industry as a villain that must be defeated. Instead, we can use industry incentives to our advantage. As long as profit margins are the same, we doubt it matters to retailers if you buy a snack that’s 100 kcal versus a version that’s 95 kcal.
One way to characterise engagement is to focus conversations on how we get to a level of impact, rather than what the level of change should be. So the critical question becomes ‘how can we reduce calorie density in the easiest and most enjoyable way possible for consumers’. The question for us is not, ‘what do you think the ambition and timelines should be?’ which is too vague and is going to get us bogged down very quickly.
For this approach to work, it’s important to give flexibility in the levers to achieve change. If you were to say ‘how can you reduce the sugar and fat content of cake by 90%’ they could rightly say ‘we don’t think you can’. But the more flexibility that’s given to hit a target, the more likely industry is to come up with a solution that we (those of us working in health policy) haven’t thought of.
Of course we need to stay alert to ‘health washing’ and there’s a lot we can do to mandate better practices, such as healthy food targets for the big retailers, as well as advertising restrictions and regulations. To avoid doubt, while we believe in working with the food industry on technical solutions, we aren’t advocating that it’s involved in deciding on the direction, or level of ambition, of dietary and health policies. And Nesta is in the fortunate position of having an endowment and independence. We’re interested in working with people because of their scale rather than their money.
Ultimately, we believe our focus on quantifiable change means we have a clearer means of holding industry to account and opens up new opportunities to turn the tide on obesity and ill health in Britain.