Food matters

Richard Sangster, leader of the DH obesity policy team, looks to the future of food in the fight against childhood obesity.

A healthy food environment is incredibly important for all of us: we are what we eat, and the number of overweight and obese people in the UK suggests that too many of us are eating too much unhealthy food.

Ready meals, supersize portions and fast food shops on every corner: the food environment has changed dramatically over the past 30 years, closely mirroring the alarming rise in obesity levels. Obesity is a complex problem that can’t be explained by our eating habits alone, but it’s clear that obesity rates have increased as many foods have become higher in sugar, salt, fat and calories.

Sugar reduction

Reducing childhood obesity is a top priority, and to make it happen we will need to transform the food environment and our attitude to food. The government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, published in August, sets out some important steps with the soft drinks industry levy and our ambitious sugar reduction programme that will see 20% of sugar taken out of food and drink that contributes the most to children’s sugar consumption. Since August, teams across government have begun to implement the actions in the plan, while continuing our wider programme to tackle obesity.

Sugar reduction is a challenge, but forward-thinking businesses are beginning to respond with enthusiasm. We have already seen major brands including Tesco, Lucozade, Waitrose and Petits Filous cut sugar from some of their main products, and this this is just the start of a collaborative effort to offer consumers healthier food choices. Public Health England has already laid some solid foundations at their recent series of meetings on sugar reduction with representatives from the food sector, which we will continue to build on.

Food and education innovation

Meanwhile, the Food Matters Live event in November showcased a variety of food innovations and a glimpse into the future of the food environment. We know that consumers are demanding healthier products, and the many health-conscious products on show at Food Matters Live demonstrated that industry is responding.

And it wasn’t just food that was on display. Innovation in food education, such as virtual reality journeys around the body, demonstrated technology’s potential to influence the way we think about food and help children better understand the benefits of a healthy diet.

Working with the food and drinks industry

We know that a healthy food environment really matters, so it’s fantastic to see so much early progress on sugar reduction and so many industry players ready to embrace the future in encouraging healthier behaviours. As part of this continuing momentum, the government has issued its response to the consultation on the soft drinks industry levy, and primary legislation will be in the Finance Bill in 2017. We will continue to work together with the food and drink industry and a range of other stakeholders to make sure that the food environment of the future is healthier for everyone. As the voluntary progress continues, we will review how much impact the plan is having and whether any further steps need to be taken.