The idea of healthy food targets is not new. Since 2006 the UK Government has published and reported against a series of voluntary targets for industry. These are aimed at reducing salt, sugar and calorie consumption through portion size reductions or changes to the processing or composition of specific products (known as reformulation). These ingredient- or product-specific targets have driven some reductions, particularly in salt, and have set a helpful framework for industry. However, overall progress has been limited due to their voluntary nature. For example, since 2016, average sugar content across the categories targeted has only reduced by around 3.5% (equivalent to around four kcal per person per day [4]) compared to the programme’s ambition of 20%. 

Alongside this, 10 of the 11 largest retailers in the UK already have their own health targets that vary in ambition, scope and transparency. These have not had the impact required because of the products across which targets apply (such as only own brands), inconsistent definitions of ‘healthy food sales’, and the level at which targets are set. Some of these developments have been driven by pressure from organisations such as Share Action, and the publication of independently assessed healthiness rankings (see Access to Nutrition Initiative UK Retailer Index 2022).

As long as these targets remain voluntary, it seems unlikely that significant progress will be made, or that those businesses that are yet to prioritise health will be motivated to shift their behaviours.

It is widely recognised across the health sector that the Government needs to do more to incentivise action by industry. For example, the Food Foundation is calling for mandatory business reporting in the food sector, while mandatory sugar and calorie targets were recommended in a recent report from Action on Sugar

We also believe that we need policies that encourage both reformulation and sales shifts towards healthier options.

The existing category specific (salt, sugar and calorie) targets principally encourage manufacturers to effect change through reformulation and portion size changes. This is the same mechanism by which the soft drink industry levy (SDIL) or any new salt, sugar or category-specific taxes (as recommended in the National Food Strategy) would have an impact. From our work earlier this year, we know that reformulation will only be part of the solution. Therefore, we need a policy that incentivises action beyond reformulation. We need to see an overall shift in sales, with a rebalancing from less healthy to more healthy products.

To maximise impact, we also need to encourage system-wide action across the food and drink industry, with policies that focus on the retail, manufacturing and out-of-home sectors (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: required system-wide action across retail, manufacturing and the out-of-home sector to reduce obesity rates and improve population health

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Below we outline our proposals for each of these sectors.

  1. Retail: we need health targets for food retailers that set an industry standard and incentivise companies to prioritise healthy sales. We think these targets should include all food sales, rather than focusing on specific ingredients or categories as with the existing Government programmes. This approach would encourage action while allowing retailers the flexibility to choose how they meet this target. This could be through reformulation, stock purchasing, product placement or promotions (see Figure 2). We think these targets should be designed to recognise and reward the progress already made by some businesses. This is the focus in this note and our work to date.

Figure 2: tools that retailers could use to achieve our proposed targets

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  1. Manufacturers: retailer targets will drive shifts in manufacturer behaviour as they respond to increased demands for healthier products from retailers, where most of their products are sold. Manufacturers should feel incentivised to do what they can to help retailers achieve their targets. However, this may not be sufficient to encourage the level of action required from manufacturers. Therefore, alongside our proposed retailer target, we endorse specific measures for the manufacturing sector that ensure they also contribute to improving the health of the nation. This could be through the introduction of new salt, sugar or category-specific taxes, as recommended by the Recipe for Change Initiative, led by the Obesity Health Alliance and others. Another option would be mandating category targets, either based on the existing voluntary government targets for sugar and calorie reductions, or focused on the top 10 most impactful food categories we identified in our Future of Food report
  2. Out-of-home sector [5]: we also know that we need to see policies aimed at improving the health of the out-of-home offer where we consume an estimated 20 to 25% of our calories. The out-of-home sector has received little meaningful attention from policymakers despite its rapid growth. This is largely due to significant data barriers. Our next phase of this work will focus on the out-of-home sector. First, by creating a novel dataset (the first of its kind – linking several data sources and enhanced by machine learning models) that helps us understand what is happening in the sector. We will then use the data to design targets for the out-of-home sector aimed at improving health. We will report our findings later in 2024.

[4] Nesta calculation using PHE 2015-2020 progress report and Amies-Cull et al (2019).

[5] The out-of-home food sector refers to businesses preparing and selling food that is ready for immediate consumption on or off the premises, and includes restaurants and takeaways.

Authors

Lydia Leon

Lydia Leon

Lydia Leon

Senior Analyst, healthy life mission

Lydia works as a senior analyst in the healthy life mission team.

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Husain Taibjee

Husain Taibjee

Husain Taibjee

Analyst, healthy life mission

Husain joined Nesta in 2022 as an analyst and will help to deliver Nesta’s healthy life mission.

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Lauren Bowes Byatt

Lauren Bowes Byatt

Lauren Bowes Byatt

Deputy Director, healthy life mission

Lauren is the Deputy Director of the healthy life mission.

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Hugo Harper

Hugo Harper

Hugo Harper

Mission Director, healthy life mission

Hugo leads Nesta's healthy life mission.

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Elena Mariani

Elena Mariani

Elena Mariani

Principal Data Scientist, healthy life mission

Elena is a principal data scientist for the healthy life mission.

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Isabel Stewart

Isabel Stewart

Isabel Stewart

Data Scientist, Data Analytics Practice

Izzy is a Data Scientist working in the Data Analytics practice.

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Jessica Jenkins

Jessica Jenkins

Jessica Jenkins

Senior Policy Advisor (Health), Rapid Insights Team

Jess is a senior policy advisor in our Rapid Insights Team (RIT).

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Caitlin Turner

Caitlin Turner

Caitlin Turner

Senior Analyst, healthy life mission

Caitlin joins Nesta as a senior analyst in the healthy life mission.

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