Expert View: Obesity is out of control and the food industry must wake up

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The Independent Online

'How was your day?" "Terrible: I had to tell a guy that we're going to have to cut his legs off." My medic friend looked glum. "He's really overweight – so much so that he can hardly bear to leave home and walk to the shops. All he does is sit in all day and eat junk food. His legs can't take it any more." Suddenly my need to whine about credit markets seemed a little meaningless.

Last week the Foresight report was published – a major study by 250 scientists of the obesity problem in the UK. It's out of control. Since 1995, the proportion of obese children has nearly doubled to 18 per cent. The experts argue that, on current trends, nearly half the population will be obese by 2050, leading to a huge rise in health costs. A figure of £46bn is mooted as the total cost to society.

The report made recommendations, but apart from a suggestion to start taxing the fat content of food, they seemed remarkably woolly given the scale of the problem – improved parent training in nutrition, tinkering with school meals, and making efforts in urban planning to enforce walking.

Making people walk that extra block to cross the road is not going to deal with a crisis on this scale. Nanny-knows-best finger-wagging has been the Government's policy for years, and it is failing. The time has come for more radical action, and the food industry knows full well that it is in the Government's sights.

The more "processed" element in the Anglo-Saxon diet so often involves the ingestion of hidden quantities of fat, salt and sugar. A fascinating case recently involved an American lady suing a manufacturer over its guacamole. There was plenty of the "evil trio" present in the dip, but one vital ingredient was reduced to a trace element – avocado. The US is worse than Britain – I am always struck that even their salads taste of sugar – but the UK is catching up fast. A couple of years ago the chairman of Cadbury asserted: "There is no such thing as good or bad food, only a good or bad diet." This no longer seems tenable.

The industry argues that it has taken action over the years, but is it enough? Mars refrained from advertising direct to children under six some time ago. A new boundary at 12 is now being considered, and not before time. Likewise, McDonald's is talking about reducing the trans-fat content in its meals, down from the current shocking 10 per cent. But then remember, some countries – such as Denmark – think trans- fat so lethal they have banned it altogether. And when Nestlé tells us it has reduced the sugar content in KitKat by 12 per cent, one can't help thinking that the product is still sweet enough.

Neville Rigby of the aptly named International Obesity TaskForce was quoted last week saying: "The industry has not got the message yet that, across the board, they have to make big changes." This is why the Government is rumoured to be mulling over more radical measures – maybe a ban on all advertising of certain specified products to children under 12; perhaps a tax on fat (or sugar) as suggested in last week's report. Most likely of all, there will be radical changes to food labelling.

Some time ago, the Food Standards Agency recommended the introduction of a traffic lights system: simple red, amber and green labelling that would make it clear to consumers just how bad certain foods are.

The industry, or more especially the food retailers led by the likes of Tesco, rebelled and have stuck to the complex tables of GDA (percentage of guideline daily amounts) that you see on all labels.

The problem with GDA is its complexity. Who other than a food scientist knows the difference between all the sugars and starches? Or the correct blend of the different fats that make up a good diet? When deciding whether to buy a product with, say, 50 per cent of your GDA, who can possibly know what the rest of the day's intake adds up to? Can anyone reading this article tell me their consumption of GDA today?

One thing you can guarantee about Gordon Brown is that he loves complex tax measures that somehow are for the "greater good". Did anyone mention a radical extension of VAT?