Last week’s recommendations from the Academy of Medical Colleges highlighted the growing obesity crisis in the UK and the role manufacturers should play in addressing the problem.
Britain’s 220,000 doctors put forward a 10-point plan, with demands including an additional tax on sugary drinks, fewer fast food outlets near schools and a ban on unhealthy food in hospitals. But unless the government makes combating obesity a personal responsibility, this strategy will not solve anything.
While the Food and Drink Federation claims the report adds little to the debate and whether or not you agree with the Academy’s recommendations, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Britain has a serious obesity problem.
Obesity levels among adults continue to grow at an alarming level. The cost to the NHS is approaching £6bn - not far short of having the Olympics in the UK every year.
“The nation treats food as fuel to be obtained at the cheapest price”
Perhaps most shocking is that half of all overweight people are unaware. Despite the plethora of food-related programmes, many people treat food as fuel to be obtained at the lowest price and in the least time. Meal preparation time has dropped from 60 minutes in 1980 to 34 minutes.
At the moment, the government is calling on manufacturers and retailers to do more to combat obesity. But the fight needs to be communicated to consumers as a personal responsibility as much as an industry one. The government is failing to educate consumers - or stimulate sufficient action.
No new initiatives or food and drink taxes will work unless consumers understand their importance and why they are being introduced. There is a clear knowledge gap - 36% of consumers think they get their five-a-day while only 13% actually do.
Consumers need to be made aware of the dangers of poor nutrition, not just with regards to the type of food they should be buying, but how to prepare healthy meals, what constitutes a balanced diet and how best to use their weekly food budget.
We can always make healthier choices and these will often deliver health improvements. In the ready meals category, for instance, the range of saturated fat content is staggering, with a 90-fold difference between the lowest and highest.
Consumers are often unaware of all the choices available and, most importantly, the implications of their choices.
We know from our research that fruit and vegetables are much more likely to be consumed as part of a home-cooked meal. However, home cooking declines as working hours lengthen and families struggle to make ends meet and retain their jobs. So people need to be educated on how to cook quick healthy meals at a low cost. There is also a case for teaching people how to manage their budgets.
Perhaps it’s time the government also used some of the shock tactics employed in other health campaigns to make consumers aware of the dangers of obesity. Attitudes need to change. That won’t happen if the government keeps absolving consumers of their responsibility and targeting only the food industry.
Giles Quick is a director at Kantar Worldpanel