As the row over the nanny state unravels, women are set to play a key role on various sides of the debate. Here are our top players fighting to improve the health of the nation

In a clear signal to the food and drink industry, Labour leader Keir Starmer said he was “up for a fight” to defend the nanny state in January.

Shadow health secretary Wes Streeting has since spoken about “steamrolling” companies into action through a clampdown on HFSS and junk food promotions.

Meanwhile, health campaign groups and powerful policy influencers such as Nesta are calling for regulation to replace what they claim is a failure of the voluntary approach.

It’s the perfect recipe for health to rise to the top of the agenda in the wake of the cost of living crisis, which pushed the war on obesity somewhat to the sidelines.

So, as the general election looms, the industry is on red alert over the future of health policy.

And, as this list proves, female leaders will play a vital role in shaping that future. A raft of women have forged important roles in health, from shaping government policy to leading campaigns on healthy change.

The question, though, is will this end up in more years of rows with little progress – or, with their influence, can the different sides finally come to an agreement on how to tackle the obesity crisis?

HFSS crackdown

Ironically, it was one man in particular who shaped much of what’s happened in obesity since the pandemic. Boris Johnson’s brush with death from Covid ushered in the government’s clampdown on HFSS promotions. It also prompted, after years of discussions, proposals to bring in a 9pm watershed for junk food ads and an online ban.

Yet since then, the HFSS crackdown has been watered down and delayed in a series of government backtracks. Meanwhile, in February, a report by the Office for Health Improvement & Disparities (OHID) found companies were falling well short of proposed targets on calorie reduction.

Faced with this lack of progress, in September, almost 40 campaign groups joined forces to revive calls for new taxes on HFSS products ahead of the election.

“I have been inspired by these women’s desire to improve the nation’s health”

Cathy Capelin, head of health and sustainable diets at IGD

Heavily involved were women such as Anna Taylor, CEO of the Food Foundation, Barbara Crowther, children’s food campaign manager at Sustain, and Obesity Health Alliance director Katharine Jenner.

“Hundreds of policies to address obesity have failed to deliver, because they’ve relied on individuals having to change their behaviour in a food environment that’s rigged against them,” argued Jenner.

Her argument just may have found support with Labour’s shadow public health minister Preet Gill. In October, she told the Labour conference the party planned to form a new health mission group to tackle the obesity crisis head on, and would not shy away from a sweeping clampdown on HFSS products.

sainsburys healthy

The charge to urge shoppers to buy healthy has suffered setbacks

Politics and public health

That support didn’t just come from politicians and campaign groups. Also at the Labour conference, Sainsbury’s group head of sustainable diets Nilani Sritharan (on our list overleaf) said supermarkets would also favour regulation if it meant creating a “level playing field”.

Public health minister Andrea Leadsom is due to reveal the Conservatives’ latest plans before the election, in the form of voluntary promises for leading food companies to report on the healthiness of their food products.

It is a similar model to the one followed by Tesco and Unilever, which have responded to pressure from the likes of ShareAction (whose chief executive is also on our list).

The question is whether a voluntary agreement is enough, and whether politicians will lead the way. Instead, many believe the agenda will be set by shareholder demands on food companies.

And let’s not forget consumers. Their growing unease over not just HFSS but also increasingly demonised ultra-processed foods is threatening seismic repercussions. This is something companies know they cannot afford to ignore, with or without regulation.

Thankfully, there are many inspiring leaders – many of them women – in health to tackle these complex issues, says Cathy Capelin, head of health and sustainable diets at IGD . “I’ve worked with many of the women on this excellent list and have been impressed and inspired by their relentless desire to improve the nation’s health,” she says.

As the row over the nanny state unravels, women are set to play a key role on various sides of the debate.

Here’s who is fighting to improve the health of the nation.

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Catherine Howarth

CEO, ShareAction

ShareAction has hounded food giants on health targets using the votes of powerful institutional shareholders. Heading up the organisation is Howarth, who became chief executive in 2008 and is a board member of the Scott Trust, owner of The Guardian. ShareAction has been instrumental in getting Tesco and Unilever to agree to health targets, and it claims the “direction of travel is clear”.


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Karen Poole

Head of healthy & sustainable diets, Tesco

If Jamie Oliver is the face of Tesco’s healthy eating campaign, Poole is one of the key figures behind the scenes. Having joined Tesco as a graduate trainee, she now heads its Health & Sustainable Diets programme, which has included partnerships with the likes of the Food Foundation and Bite Back. She and Tesco are now working with IGD in the latest phase of its so-called HFSS “nudge” trials.


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Jo Tivers

Head of food & quality, KFC UK & Ireland

The woman who brought us the KFC vegan burger has been shaking things up at the fried chicken chain. Tivers, whose CV spans Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Brakes and Mars, led the fast food giant’s first Nutrition Progress Update in February. The upshot has been the reformulation of KFC’s fries as well as a range of healthier rice boxes, salads, and wraps, in what was described as a major leap forward in its “nutrition journey”.


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Nilani Sritharan

Group healthy living manager, Sainsbury’s

Sritharan emerged as an unlikely supporter of tighter HFSS laws at the Labour conference, when she called on greater government regulation to tackle obesity. And she’s been leading by example: Sainsbury’s has topped the Food Foundation’s supermarket league table for its health and sustainability commitments. She has also been described by IGD as an “invaluable partner” in its behaviour change trials.


More power lists:


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Katharine Jenner

Director, Obesity Health Alliance

After a decade at Action on Salt & Sugar, Jenner took charge of campaign umbrella group the Obesity Health Alliance in 2022.

Described as having “the ear of government”, she brings a less abrasive approach to industry than her old ally Prof Graham MacGregor. Yet the OHA has been key of late in spearheading calls for new health taxes after the failure of the government’s voluntary reformulation targets.


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Zoë-Marie Ellis

Head of nutrition & science communication, Danone

Under Ellis, Danone has shifted from sugar-heavy yoghurts to nutrition – and signed a sponsorship deal with Team GB. A registered nutritionist, Ellis started her career in the NHS and took on her current role at Danone in April 2023. She says she’s taken “hard but necessary” decisions in delisting products to meet Danone’s commitment for at least 90% of its portfolio to be non-HFSS.


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Susan Jebb

Chairman, FSA (outgoing); professor of diet & population health, Oxford University

She may be stepping down as FSA chair next month, but Jebb could be even more influential outside government circles. In her quest to run further obesity research, Jebb is set to remain a powerful figure in the health debate. Despite heading up the now defunct Responsibility Deal, Jebb has backed more regulation, and led a 2019 study calling for new taxes on HFSS products.


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Joanne Elsdon

Head of food & drink, Greggs

Described as a “force of nature” for healthy diets, Elsdon has helped Greggs move away from HFSS heavyweights such as sausage rolls. Its spring menu features a new range of pasta pots and rice under 400 calories. With a degree in human nutrition, Elsdon’s career began quality-checking pies and sausage rolls at Northern Foods 25 years ago, and she has gone on to work with Asda, Morrisons and Greencore.


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Michelle Morris

Professor of data science for food, Leeds University

Morris’ work in measuring the effectiveness of supermarket “nudge” tactics last year won an award from the Economic & Social Research Council. Then in November, it emerged she would head up the first major sales base study to measure the impact of HFSS laws. The results could provide evidence for a Labour government promising to ban bogofs and other multibuys.


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Victoria Targett

Team leader, reformulation, DHSC

One of three key officials behind the landmark ‘Sugar reduction: the evidence for action’ report in 2015, Targett has spent 20 years living up to her name. She has programmes on calories, salt and sugar reduction all under her belt. But the Soft Drinks levy has been the biggest intervention in her arsenal. Targett and her colleagues at the OHID are now under growing pressure to extend taxes to other sectors.


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Health and wellbeing is well and truly back on the political agenda, and for good reason. With more than half of UK adults overweight and more than one in four classified as obese, we cannot deny we are in the midst of an obesity crisis – one that’s estimated to cost the NHS £6.5bn a year.

The food and drink industry is left with a choice: wait for legislation or make change now to support healthier options for consumers. Across the sector, there are incredible women such as Karen Poole, Katharine Jenner and Professor Michelle Morris, responding to this challenge in innovative and creative ways.

Women are tackling the obesity crisis through both new product development and reformulation, thus providing healthier options while hopefully educating consumers, too.

Some of the UK’s most well-known brands are represented on this list, some of which aren’t synonymous with the term ‘health and wellbeing’ – but the work of Jo Tivers at KFC and Joanne Elsdon at Greggs demonstrates the value of collaboration across the industry in informing policy and making meaningful change.

These women are not removing choice or autonomy from the consumer but providing healthier and affordable alternatives, ultimately empowering consumers to make more informed decisions. And what’s arguably most impressive is they’re doing this without compromising on growth and profitability.

Jazz Swift, Director at Newton Europe