A brave new HFSS world
For some decades the issue of diet and nutrition and the nation’s well-being has been a matter that has animated policymakers. Vast vested interest and no small spoonful of political doctrine – the sort that likes to tell people what to do for their own good in particular – have clashed over how to bring about a healthier dietary regime in the UK.
That there is a need for better dietary outcomes is a matter of incontrovertible fact. Perhaps one of the key outcomes of the Coronavirus pandemic has been the terribly sad but very high level, by international standards, of the disease’s mortality rate in the UK.
The health industry had to learn a lot in a very short period of time, and, in terms of vaccines, engaged in real scientific wonder. However, the less comfortable fact is that obesity in the UK has seriously contributed to our very high mortality rates; and more so in the USA, where in many poorer, particularly mid-southern states, waistlines consume a lot of fabric.
What is to be done? Well this is a never ending debate; one had by our grandparents and no doubt will be had by our grandchildren. In a free society people should have the right to choose to eat as they wish, however, does this mean that society should foot the healthcare bill for a lifestyle of excess? A big question, but one that surely suggests that diet, nutrition, and the wider food system should be upfront and central to any education policy.
Additionally, maybe diet and health, nutrition and well-being should be more upfront and central to employment practices in the UK too? What I am coming to here is that the debate about our nation’s waistline involves all of us; but it requires enlightened and committed participants across the board. Alas, when it comes to the Johnson Government we have the opposite of enlightenment and commitment. Ho hum!
Whilst all this is so, new regulations are about to be imposed in the UK, which represent a notable adjustment for the food industry. The UK Government is very good at thinking up ideas that other people have to fund, implement, and operate, whilst many bureaucrats live the ‘do as I say not as I do’ life; as partygate disgracefully exposed.
Those new regulations, relating to foodstuffs purportedly comprising “high fat, salt and sugar” (HFSS) levels, impose quite stringent new rules on the positioning and merchandising of so-called “unhealthy foods” within supermarkets. The theory is that by removing HFSS products from prominent positions in-store, as well as changing promotional rules, we as individuals and society will be nudged into changing our behaviour.
There is much in-store trial work underway, bringing different categories to entrances and aisle ends, and re-engineering those aisles too; some of the major proprietary brands are seeking to underscore their brand presence. It will be interesting to see how stores evolve and shoppers behave. We note with interest that Waitrose is trialling an end to BCorp certified goods, whilst fruit ‘n’ veg, and health and beauty could be more prominent still.
Such moves are all well and good but if we really want to take the nation’s health seriously, from a nutrition perspective, then there is a growing argument for a serious food policy – end-to-end, not vested in farming or processors’ interests, but everybody’s. Such thinking exists out there but not in the minds of Messrs Eustace and Kennedy, the anathema of progressive thinking as opposed to self perpetuating dinosaurs.
Amidst the disaster of Ukraine and Russia’s appalling behaviour, we have an interest in structurally building our food security. If we align this to world leading animal welfare and sustainability goals, then with enlightened thinking from the public sector – not least the hugely inefficient, badly managed, and complex NHS, through to private bodies – we can put food upfront and central. This could change lives for the better, and maybe even reduce demand upon our health system; not that some would deep-down support such progress.
The HFSS rules are like so much of today’s UK Government; perhaps well meaning but lacking in context, vision and drive, not least to do the right things and cut through vested interest. Hopefully, these new rules will make a difference, because our grandchildren need a better food system, but I am not holding my breath.
Dr Clive Black