Tackling obesity: Overwhelming UK public support for sugar and calorie reduction, PHE survey finds

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21 Nov 2018 --- A new survey exploring the UK public’s perception of obesity and Public Health England’s (PHE) programs shows overwhelming support for government actions on the issue. These programs have challenged industry to reduce sugar and calories by 20 percent in everyday foods like breakfast cereals, yogurts, pizzas, and ready meals. Around nine in 10 people support the government working with the food industry to make foods and drinks healthier – and helping the National Health Service (NHS) to tackle obesity and health issues is one of the key reasons.

These new figures of support were highlighted by Duncan Selbie, PHE Chief Executive, who addressed the food industry at Food Matters Live in London yesterday (November 20). Selbie noted that next year PHE will demonstrate where progress has not been made on sugar reduction and how this may result in further government action.

He also called on every sector of the food industry, in particular out of home outlets, to step up to the challenge and accelerate their efforts. “Obesity is the pandemic of modern times. Customers are saying they want faster progress from the food industry, and in particular, those businesses that have taken little or no action. We will be publicly reporting on these during 2019,” Selbie said. 

Other notable findings from the survey include:
• Over nine in 10 respondents think obesity is a problem in the UK, and 79 percent believe it has a negative impact on the NHS.
• Only cancer (47 percent of respondents) and mental health (43 percent) are seen as bigger health concerns for the UK population than obesity (39 percent).
• People believe the greatest responsibility for tackling obesity lies with individuals and families (90 percent), the food industry (80 percent) and the government (72 percent), underlining a belief in a collective responsibility.
• There was support from 87 percent of people to replace unhealthy products near supermarket tills and checkouts, with healthier ones.

Dr. Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE, explains how severe obesity in ten-to-eleven year-olds is at an all-time high in the UK.

“Plans to improve the nation’s diet are often described as “nanny state” interference, but it’s clear people want healthier food and they expect the industry to play their full part in this,” she says. 

The survey also shows people expect the government to tackle obesity, with 60 percent believing it could do more. However, the survey was undertaken before the government published chapter two of its Childhood Obesity Plan.

In May 2018, PHE reported on progress against the first year sugar reduction ambition of 5 percent. This showed an overall 2 percent reduction in foods contributing the most sugar to children’s diets, with up to 6 percent reduced in some product categories.

Next year, PHE will publish further progress towards reaching the 20 percent sugar reduction ambition by 2020, as well as guidelines for industry to achieve the 20 percent reduction in calories by 2024.

April 6, 2018, marked the introduction of the UK’s much-debated sugar tax which pushes up the price of sugar-sweetened soft drinks across Britain. It has two tiers; a lower rate of 18 pence per liter for beverages with a total sugar content between 5-8g per 100ml and a higher price of 24 pence per liter for drinks with total sugar more than 8g per 100ml. The onset of the tax inspired a wave of product reformulation in order to avoid the tax. Classic Coca-Cola and classic Pepsi Cola were two rare exceptions that maintained their original recipe.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May introduced the levy as part of the Childhood Obesity Strategy in a bid to change the consumption habits of children across the country. The latest statistics reveal Britain has a big problem with overweight and obese kids. 

Excessive sugar consumption, much of which comes from soft drinks, is being blamed for the public health crisis.

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