Grocers are being urged to help fight the rise in obesity. But to what extent is it their job? Helen Gregory reports
Do supermarkets welcome their portly customers with open arms ­ happy in the knowledge that they'll pile their trollies high ­ or do they get a stab of conscience as chubby arms reach for thrombosis-inducing food?
It's all very well for retailers to point out their leaflets on healthy eating, but many shoppers won't or can't read them and weren't listening if schoolteachers gave out any nutritional education.
So is it, at least, partly up to the stores as well as suppliers to keep a check on shoppers' expanding waistlines?
Jane Wardle, co-founder of the charity Weight Concern, reckons manufacturers need to take more responsibility so that it's easier for shoppers to make healthy choices.
"The food industry and retailers need to join up with the public health community and try to tackle the fundamental conflict ­ if we're going to eat less, we'll buy less and companies profits will go down."
Wardle believes we're the victims of the success of our food supply, distribution and manufacturing sectors. "Having a wide variety of choice increases the amount people eat," she says. "Our stone-age genes make it tough to make the right kind of choices when there's so much plenty, and many foods have a high energy density."
And this poor diet is already badly affecting the younger generation as nutritionists at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health recently discovered. Diet experts there warned that sedentary lifestyles are being compounded by an abundance of cheap but often unhealthy high-fat, high- salt and high-sugar food. They warn of a 21st century snack culture that's creating a generation eating itself sick.
It's commonly accepted that high-fat, energy-dense diets, including takeaways, are to blame for the trend, as these foods don't satiate the appetite as quickly as foods rich in carbohydrates.
The result of all this munching on sugar and fat means obesity levels across the population have tripled in 20 years and are rising faster than in most other countries in Europe; some experts predict that by 2030, half of all adults will be obese and plagued by associated illnesses.
In its last report on obesity, the National Audit Office announced that "extensive marketing of highly palatable, energy-dense foods" was a factor causing obesity, which seems to puts the ball in the industry's court.
Price-cutting and competition between chains is at fever pitch and it's not unusual to find high-fat ready meals for 99p, which makes them ideal fuel for the less well off. Is it any surprise that obesity levels are highest in the lower socio-economic classes?
With supplier competition rife, it's easy to see why there are so many bogofs on fizzy drinks and chocolate biscuits, but how often do you see special deals on apples?
Scotland's food and health co-ordinator Gillian Kynoch agrees there's a disparity: "A healthy basket is going to cost you more ­ if you're on a budget it makes economic sense to buy white bread and cakes to get maximum tummy fill'. Large supermarkets have done a lot to address this with their own label lines but there's more to be done in smaller stores."
Under her direction, Scottish companies are being encouraged to develop and test new products that are lower in saturated fat, sugar and salt at two new research centres, using government support and grants.
She is passionate in her belief that the Scots particularly need better access to healthier food choices and says it's something suppliers could address.
"If you could take 2%-3% of the fat out of some of the big lines it would have a huge effect on people's diet without having a huge effect on the product."
Kynoch's confident the market will drive these changes as people demand healthier food, but she realises the government must help create the market through education, and a big Scottish campaign is in the pipeline to urge changes in diet. "We're aware that Scots regularly try and fail to lose weight ­ we must make it easier."
However, the UK government isn't hot on too much intervention.
A Department of Health spokesman says: "Any contribution that manufacturers can make to improve and increase access to a healthy diet will aid obesity initiatives." It insists that, alongside the Food Standards Agency, it's working with food producers, manufacturers, retailers and caterers to increase provision and access to fruit and vegetables, and to improve the overall balance of diet ­ including salt, fat and sugar consumption. This led Heinz to boast recently that its baked beans and spaghetti in tomato sauce counts towards the recommended five portions of fruit and veg a day which the government promotes.
The DoH flags up this campaign but says the government alone can't bring about change. It depends on partnerships with the food industry, and with health, consumer and education groups. However, it refuses to consider legislation to encourage the food industry to sell healthier products and emphasises instead the importance of proper information and access to healthy food.
The DoH works directly with the Food Standards Agency which has already acknowledged the issue in its attempt to tackle misleading healthy' messages in labelling and advertising, as well as improve parents' awareness and understanding of healthy eating messages, and assess the effect of advertising on behaviour.
Its strategy nods to a recent report from the Consumer's Association which named and shamed food manufacturers that make confusing and misleading claims about products. The watchdog found that products which could be viewed as a healthy option by consumers had high fat content, for example Walkers Lites! low-fat crisps which had a 22% fat content.
Food labelling still confuses consumers ­ take the term "98% fat-free" for example. Rachel Turner, director of Link Consumer Strategies, says: "They're generally confused by health claims, buying into low fat ranges without realising there's sometimes a trade-off with higher sugar." However, she doesn't believe shoppers are misled deliberately.
"Manufacturers are looking for the biggest win and will go after the low-fat story, the strongest pull for consumers," she says. And Turner believes it can be hard to get all nutritional information on the pack because it's important not to confuse shoppers. Basic education is important, she says. "Retailers and manufacturers could work with government to help people think about food a bit more."
The FSA is promoting more helpful labelling of food products and works with sectors of the food industry to reduce the salt content of manufactured foods. However, it has no plans to do the same with fat and sugar but has produced guidelines for consumers.
An FSA spokesman says: "We don't see any food as bad for you ­ it's more about a healthy, balanced diet. We would not try to impose rules about what food should contain. Consumers have a right to choose fatty food."
It's a view that the retailers share. The Co-operative Group is pretty hot on honest and clear labelling and does not go in for 98% fat-free' which it claims is misleading. It also sends nutritionists into schools and stores to educate consumers.
But Wendy Wrigley, general manager, retail brands, insists it's not their job to nanny shoppers. "We have a responsibility for the products we sell but we don't want to tell people what they must or must not eat or restrict their choice." She believes ready meals are fine eaten in moderation and that lifestyles mean people need to be able to make the convenience choice.
Sainsbury's company nutritionist Gill Fine agrees and dismisses the notion that they should take fatty food from its range because it is fine "in moderation". She acknowledges obesity is a major health problem and says Sainsbury has a role in helping people to understand their nutritional needs. However, she cautions: "We're not a health promotion agency and must not tell people to lose weight."
The retailer believes it's blazing a trail to improve the nation's health and is proud of its work to highlight fat and calories in products. It's just about to launch a huge healthy eating campaign labelled Eat your way to better health', including a Free From' range for shoppers with food allergies and food intolerances, and a Way to Five' range containing lots of fruit and vegetables to help shoppers eat the recommended five portions a day. It's also launching nutrition tours for GPs and their patients.
Meanwhile, Tesco has also pledged to resurrect the five a day campaign in store.
Noble endeavours and a good start to the basic need for education on the subject. Let's all make a toast to that ­ with low-fat spread of course. n