Food companies cut calories – but is it enough?

Over the weekend a range of big food and drink manufacturers announced they are going to cut the calories in their products to help tackle obesity. This is part of the government’s new ‘responsibility deal’ to encourage the food industry to take their responsibility for nutrition and health seriously. The problem is that the Tory-led government only seems to be listening to the industry’s point of view – which is why a number of health charities and NGOs walked out of the talks.

Of course I welcome big companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, Pepsi, Mars and Subway trying to make their products healthier. But what I really want to see is those same manufacturers using transparent labelling so that people can make their own choices based on honest information.

Most of the companies that have signed up currently use GDAs, a system invented by the food industry. Guideline Daily Amounts, or GDAs, are meant to show you what percentage of your daily intake for calories, fat, saturates, sugar and salt a product contains. So you know that your bowl of cereal this morning provided you with 11% of the maximum amount of sugar you should eat today, for example.

Unfortunately it’s not so simple. GDAs are based on the recommended intake for the average middle-aged woman. For those people that are not middle-aged women, and for those middle-aged women who are not ‘average’, the numbers won’t be the same. Most importantly they will be very different for children. The most misleading aspect of GDAs, however, is that they are based on portion size. For example many GDAs for breakfast cereals are based on a serving of 30g, but most people would eat a serving of more like 50g. So if the box says you’re getting 20% of your calories from your cereal, in reality you’re getting more like 33%. And of course, not many people have the time or the inclination to add up their ‘percentages’ every day to make sure they are eating the recommended amounts.

This is why I have always favoured colour coding the nutrients in a traffic light scheme. Traffic lights are based on how much fat, saturates, sugar, salt or calories a product contains per 100g, which makes products easy to compare, regardless of portion size. So if you are comparing two ready-made beef lasagnes, and you want to cut down on salt, you can and immediately see that the one with a green or orange light has less salt than the one with a red light.

Some UK supermarkets have been leading the way on honest food labelling and I’m glad to see that Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Waitrose are part of the deal to cut calories, alongside using traffic light labelling. Unfortunately two of the biggest supermarkets, Tesco and Morrisons, still favour the GDA scheme, which according to all major consumer organisations is less consumer-friendly.

This week I am being filmed as part of a new BBC documentary on obesity. They want to know about the European food labelling legislation that I worked on for years, and was finally agreed last summer. I was pushing for traffic light labelling for all processed foods, action on added transfats and greater transparency about what exactly was in the food that we buy. Unfortunately many of my proposals were voted against after heavy lobbying from the food and drink industry.

The UK has Europe’s highest rate of obesity, and subsequently diabetes, heart disease and cancer, amongst other diseases, are on the rise. Around 25% of British people are obese, which is far higher than the EU average of 15%. If we are serious about reversing this tide, then we need to give people the information they need to make healthier choices for themselves. I call on Andrew Lansley to take his responsibility seriously by pushing the industry into using honest food labelling.

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