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Check the label

Check the label

The UK has the highest level of obesity in western Europe. Will better food labels help us break free of junk food?

In its food strategy, the government said it would look at how to improve the labelling of food and drink to make it easier for people to choose healthy options. 

Obesity levels in England have been going up steadily, from 15% of the population in 1993 to nearly one in three now. 

We know that being very overweight is linked to a number of potentially deadly conditions, including type 2 diabetes and heart disease. But Covid-19 has really focussed minds, with studies linking obesity to an increased risk of hospitalisation or death.

“Although I was superficially in the peak of health when I caught it, I had a very common underlying condition. My friends I was too fat. And I’ve since lost 26 pounds and you can imagine that in bags of sugar, and I’m going to continue that diet because you’ve got to search for the hero inside yourself in the hope that that individual is considerably slimmer.”

Boris Johnson

When the prime minister Boris Johnson got it and was admitted to hospital during the pandemic, he described it as a “wake-up call” to lose weight.

Yet we are surrounded by the temptation to eat food that’s bad for us. From chocolate at Easter to a packet of crisps with our lunch, the kind of sugary and salty food that was rare a few generations ago has now become a regular and almost inescapable feature of our lives.

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“We know that food businesses spend about £140m a year on really pushing junk food to us and of course we’re susceptible to it. Junk food is designed to taste good. It’s full of fat, sugar, salt, all the things that our body craves.”

Thomasina Miers, a chef, speaking to Channel 4

Processed food is cheaper than healthy food, and it’s marketed and promoted to us relentlessly. Around half of the chocolate we buy is on promotion. So helping us stay healthy involves tipping the balance of this system.

Some measures, such as a ban on ‘buy one get one free’ offers on junk food and restricting advertising of it on TV, have been delayed or shelved.

But ministers have introduced calorie counts on menus.

And the UK was one of the first countries in the world to introduce traffic light labelling on food.

“We need something the public can respond to. It needs to be really simple and it needs to be something that you or I, if we are going to choose go ‘whoops OK, I know how much that is I might take this as a choice.”

Shirley Cramer, Chief Executive, Royal Society for Public Health, ITV News

The problem is, this front of pack labelling is voluntary, and companies can choose whether or not to use the colours or present it in black and white.

We spoke to Nicki Whiteman at Biteback 2030, the healthier eating campaign group.

“Well, you’ve only got to look at cereal packets for example and where that traffic light system would have been red, red, orange, companies choose to use in black and white.

Where it would be green, they choose to put it in colour. Essentially what they are doing is subtly misleading consumers, tipping us over to making decisions based on misleading claims.”

Nicki Whiteman from Biteback speaking to Tortoise

At Tortoise, we surveyed the 30 biggest food companies in the UK for our Better Food Index, which scores them on things like nutrition, environmental impact and transparency.

We found that sugary food and drink which should have a red traffic light is 45 per cent less likely to have a coloured label or any front-of-pack nutrition labelling at all, compared with healthier products. 

One energy drink we looked at has 61 per cent of an adult’s daily recommended intake of sugar, but we found cans for sale in the UK that don’t have any traffic light labelling. 

“All of this stuff matters and we mustn’t lose sight of why it matters. It matters because the health of one in three eleven-year-olds is already at risk from the food they eat…. Anyone who tells you, you’re not being forced to buy this stuff, well, aren’t we? Or are we being tricked? It should be easy to eat healthily.”

Nicki Whiteman from Biteback speaking to Tortoise

But is labelling really the best way to break our addiction to junk food and sugary drinks?

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Henry Dimbleby, the co-founder of Leon fast food restaurants, was asked by the government to come up with a National Food Strategy.

It examined our entire food system, from its environmental impacts to its effect on our waistlines – and his view is that labelling is insufficient. So far, he said, government attempts to shift diets have relied heavily on interventions that need individuals to make a conscious effort to change their behaviour. 

Instead, he proposed a tax on sugar and salt sold for use in processed food.

That didn’t make it into the government’s recent food strategy and neither did mandatory traffic-light labelling.

That’s despite a study of Australia’s scheme that showed manufacturers were more likely to make products with labels healthier, by reducing salt or sugar levels. 

What’s more, this effect was greatest for unhealthy products, the ones that are currently less likely to have labels.

“We need a whole host of things. This is a very complex problem. It’s not going to be solved by one measure alone, but labelling is a part of it, there is no doubt about it.”

Nicki Whiteman from Biteback speaking to Tortoise

Information alone won’t break our addiction to junk food. But shining more light on the industry that feeds us will be a step in the right direction.

Today’s episode was written by Jeevan Vasagar and Alex Inch and mixed by Imy Harper.