The barriers between us and healthy eating

The Food Standards Agency’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) published yesterday shows that we’re eating less salt, saturated fat and sugar and more people are eating their five a day, but there is a lot to be done before most people meet dietary goals.

Rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases had prompted an unprecedented focus on promoting healthier eating. Whereas once it was all about education, it is recognised that government and industry also have important roles helping us to make healthier choices – from changing product recipes to simplified nutrition labelling. The NDNS results partly reflect this effort, but also reinforce that this will be a long haul. A multitude of actions are under way, but now need to go further and faster.

One area of success has been in reformulating products. The FSA has worked with manufacturers to reduce salt and is now looking at saturated fat and sugar. Action has taken place across many sectors, but the fact that many people would be surprised by how much salt was in their cereal or ready meal in the first place highlights the importance of information. If people don’t know what’s going on their plates and into their mouths, how can they follow a balanced diet? Many of us know little about what’s in our food so rely on producers to be transparent on front of pack and responsible in their use of health and nutrition claims, not exploiting our naivety.

But front of pack nutrition labelling is one area where the FSA still meets resistance. Many companies have adopted the FSA’s recommended scheme; others have persisted with a different approach. A recent FSA evaluation found that the best model combines % guideline daily amounts, traffic light colours and ‘high’, ‘medium’ and ‘low’ descriptors. All manufacturers and retailers now need to take a responsible, evidence-based approach and use this single scheme.

But we don’t just get our food from supermarkets. People spend almost a third of their food budget on eating out so more information is needed in restaurants. Last year, the FSA secured the commitment of some of the UK’s leading eateries to display calorie information on their menus. This now needs to be rolled out more broadly. Some places where we eat out are particularly key and school meals have rightly received a lot of focus. It is now important to focus more on food provided in other important institutions, most notably, and ironically, hospitals.

Food promotions also need more attention. Government messages about healthy eating must not be watered down or undermined by heavy, sophisticated promotion of less healthy foods, whether in the form of price promotions aimed at adults or creative techniques targeting children through various media encouraging a desire for precisely those foods they should be eating in moderation.

Many UK initiatives have been world leading but will take time to translate into real change, healthier diets and longer lives. The momentum has to be maintained and there are still many new areas that need to be addressed. Only then will it be easy for consumers to opt for healthier, rather than less healthy choices.

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