Occasional treats should not be demonised. says Malachy McReynolds, MD, Elizabeth Shaw

A year ago, the government published its White Paper on all aspects of public health, Choosing Health. An important chapter dealt with the challenge of obesity and set out a comprehensive plan to tackle it.

Government, industry and non-government organisations all share one common goal - the wellbeing of consumers. However, if we are to truly make a difference to the health of the nation, we need to ensure that the changes put in place and the actions taken are going to make a meaningful difference.

Government health policies must be based on scientific evidence and robust research, not based on a kneejerk reaction to win party support or make headlines.

We recognise that the industry must play its part in educating consumers to balance energy in with energy out. However, in this debate it is often easy to focus on one group of foods or eating occasions rather than diets and lifestyles as a whole.

Taking, for example, the biscuit, cake, chocolate and confectionery sector, people eat no more of our foods today than they did 10 years ago, and independent research shows that overweight young people are no more likely to over-eat sweet foods (biscuits, cakes and confectionery) than other sources of energy.

In fact, the major growth areas in our sector are sugar-free chewing gum and savoury, not sweet biscuits. However, our foods are often singled out as a leading cause of obesity.

Our industry sector has striven hard to help people choose healthy diets and lifestyles. For example, we have increased the information on pack to help consumers understand the recommended daily intake of the key nutrients their food provides; information on healthy lifestyles is available on pack and via company web sites; and companies have implemented responsible promotion and advertising codes.

There are many portion sizes available and many in the industry are working on calorie-controlled options and products with less fat,
sugar and salt. But if even these lines are going to be banned from vending machines or fall foul of advertising restrictions, suppliers may wonder whether it is worth investing in them.

Many of the most historic names in British food manufacturing have long been synonymous with progressive employment practices and social philanthropy. That tradition lives on today, in companies both large and small. From employee health programmes and community involvement to outreach to communities who need job opportunities, our members have a record of which to be proud. We hope this will continue for many years to come.

However, regulatory burdens are being piled upon us. Restrictions on advertising are mooted; restrictions on where and how we can sell our products are threatened; our products may have to carry warnings; plus we may be told exactly what we can say about them and what we cannot.

The forgotten key fact is that our products continue to give pleasure to millions. We market some of the best-loved brands in Britain. We care for our consumers. But as a nation we are in danger of abandoning policies of informing and educating consumers and encouraging them to take responsibility for their health status - by taking exercise, for example - and instead wagging nanny’s finger and telling them what they can and cannot eat.

We believe that the great majority of our consumers know that what we make are treats, a reward at the end of a long day, something to share with family and friends, a pleasure to enjoy in moderation. They are not the products of the devil incarnate, to be demonised and hounded off shelves.

As Marie Lloyd put it all those years ago: “A little of what you fancy does you good!”