Sector pressed on obesity and healthy eating cost

By Michelle Perrett

- Last updated on GMT

Calls for more obesity action
Calls for more obesity action

Related tags Obesity

The root causes of obesity lie in the food sector and the Government needs to invest in food innovation and reformulations that are affordable, a report by think tank Demos has revealed.

The Turning the Tables report​ states that the UK food market is not working for consumers, with too many facing “significant barriers”​ to healthy diets. It argues that making it harder to sell unhealthy foods is a vital part of encouraging the market to shift towards producing healthier foods. 

The report comes after July’s publication of the first part of the National Food Strategy,​ which intensified pressure on food manufacturers to support healthy eating. Author Henry Dimbleby claimed the industry clothed “itself and its products in false virtue”.

Turning the Tables​ proposes that the Government should subsidise healthy foods that are already low in price, such as tins of tomatoes, carrots and frozen vegetables to make healthy options much cheaper.

Demos also recommends that the Government invests money raised from the Sugar Levy, Soft Drinks Industry Levy, and a recommended Harmful Processed Meats Levy in a “transformative” ​Food and Agriculture Sector Deal. This would accelerate research and development in reformulating food on a much greater scale than seen before, to make them healthier and more cost-effective for consumers, it claimed. 


It calls for a levy on nitrite-cured processed meats, following World Health Organisation claims linking them to bowel cancer​, and a fund to develop lab-grown meat or meat alternatives.

It suggests the Government should work with the Food Standards Agency to make packaging for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods less appealing to consumers, mirroring 2016 changes to tobacco packaging. 

The report explores public attitudes towards healthy eating, estimating that 20m adults cannot afford healthy foods in the UK, and that 19m cannot find healthy foods available in shops close to their homes. 

The research – based on a survey of 1,000 UK adults – suggests that the British public favoured more interventionist policies for tackling unhealthy eating. 

Almost three quarters of people (71%) said they would support government subsidies that make healthy foods cheaper and almost half (47%) would support additional taxes on unhealthy foods.

Demos describes itself as a cross-party think tank. It was founded in 1993 and specialises in social policy, developing evidence-based solutions in a range of areas - from education and skills to health and housing. Its current chief executive is Polly Mackenzie, who joined the group in January 2018 and previously worked as director of policy to the deputy prime minister from 2010-15.

Rose Lasko-Skinner, researcher at Demos and Turning the Tables ​author, said: “Boris Johnson’s strategy to crackdown on obesity is a welcome step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough in tackling root causes of obesity – many of which lie in our food sector, rather than with retailers 

“Our research shows there is an opportunity for the Government to be even bolder, and pioneers for a new era of food innovation. 


“By stimulating groundbreaking innovation in the food sector, the Government could make food healthier, more affordable and provide better choices for consumers, whilst supporting the workforce in the recovery from COVID-19. With the political will to make it happen, it has the potential to transform the health of people in Britain from all walks of life.” 

In the report’s foreword, Conservative peer and former Secretary of State for Health Lord Lansley outlines some successes at reformulating foods and promoting healthier options. These include reducing salt and trans-fats, the sugary drinks levy, calorie labelling and supporting the sale of fresh foods by corner shops 

“But the overall impact has been insufficient and the polarisation of debate between those who see this as an issue of liberty and those who want to bring in the ‘Ban on Unhealthy Foods Act’ has too often hindered worthwhile progress,”​he said

“That is why I welcome this report, which rightly lays emphasis on understanding public opinion and proven consumer preferences, to identify which interventions will gather public support and generate the right response.

“This means promoting information and choice, pushing hard for the reformulations which consumers will tolerate, and shifting the balance of affordability away from energy-dense, processed foods high in sugar and fats, and towards fresh foods and ingredients.”

The report also indicates: 

  • The three main drivers that consumers say push them towards unhealthy foods are: taste (43%), cost (34%) and ease (34%).
  • The majority (59%) of people would support requiring all grocery shops to stock healthy foods.
  • Just under half (45%) of people would support standardised packaging on unhealthy foods – similar to approaches taken on cigarette packaging. 
  • A further four in ten (43%) would support banning unhealthy foods on public transport and slightly fewer (37%) would support banning foods in public places.

Related topics Obesity

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