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Many of the arguments used to bash manufacturers are lazy, boring and stuck on repeat. But that’s food and drink industry critics for you, all the more so now the debate about the health impacts of processed foods is being ramped up by a new champion.

The new poster boy is Chris van Tulleken, the TV doctor who is gaining more airtime and column inches since the publication of his book Ultra Processed People. Yet he’s not the only one, as a BBC Panorama programme about the health impacts of processed food this week added more fuel to the fire.

As someone who has recently returned to journalism, it is frustrating these conversations have moved on so little, if at all. Unless you count the voguish use of ‘ultra-processed foods’ (UPF) to demonise the industry as progress, the likes of van Tulleken and his book fail to suggest realistic change through their tirades.

The latest debate van Tulleken waded into was about weight loss drug semaglutide, recently approved for NHS use. It can be offered to people who have at least one weight-related health condition, as well as those with a body mass index that puts them near the top of the obese range. It works by helping to supress a patient’s appetite.

Speaking on BBC 4’s Today programme this week, van Tulleken welcomed use of the drug. Following this praise, he claimed the discussion of personal responsibility for one’s own weight was “absolutely dead” and therefore one of the reasons the drug was needed.

‘The toxic environment’

The cause of obesity as a consequence of “the toxic environment” in which people live and “the idea that they are personally responsible is like saying people were personally responsible for the pandemic of lung cancer caused by tobacco”, he said. The food environment alone is the cause of obesity and diet-related disease, he claimed, and that is what needs to change.

But why is the discussion of personal responsibility, as van Tulleken puts it, dead?

The UK’s food and drink industry has complied with wave after wave of legislation, including recent HFSS challenges. It is also not an amorphous lump as van Tulleken characterises it: it is a dynamic market in which retailers and suppliers pursue varied solutions to the challenges and opportunities that feeding the nation affords, including innovation to reduce sugar, to reformulate plant bread and to make crisps healthier

UPF manufacturers in the UK do not hide the nutritional values of their products. For the most part, it is all there on packaging in red, amber and green. Fats, saturated fats, salt and sugar levels are there for all to see.

Many food and drink manufacturers have also implemented their own strict guidelines on portion control, marketing to children and to adults.

The UK’s food culture

Van Tulleken argues the UK’s food culture is one where most calories come from addictive UPF made by major companies that control the science policies around diet.

Few in the industry who make UPF would argue their foods are to be consumed in abundance. No, the message from manufacturers is these products are to be eaten (and enjoyment is also often an important factor) as part of a balanced diet. The traffic light system on packaged foods makes this very easy to understand.

The industry has certainly fought against efforts to curtail UPF through bans on BOGOFs. On the other hand it’s not a binary situation: it’s also no secret UPFs are often cheaper than a whole food diet and quicker for consumers to prepare and eat. In a world where costs are rising and time is tighter, the appeal is clear and more could be done to balance health and convenience.

However, the argument and attention should move towards educating consumers, especially children in schools, about healthy, balanced diets and exercise. UPFs may be part of the problem but they are not the problem.

Industries like gaming and media must also take accountability by helping to ensure consumers are active and reduce screen time in favour of exercise. Schools and the government need to do more to educate children and consumers on food and drink, because as van Tulleken rightly states the UK does have an obesity problem. However, it’s not up to manufacturers to bear all the responsibility. And it’s not up to the government (or the pharmaceutical industry) to provide all the answers. It’s up to all of us.