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March 14, 2024
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Supporting a recipe for change

Prof. Matt Ashton, one of our policy leads for healthy places has written a guest blog for Recipe For Change, a campaign coalition making the case for an industry levy to help make food healthier. In it, he explores how to tackle the fact that the places where we live, work and relax are flooded with food overloaded with sugar and salt.

Over the past 50 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people experiencing largely preventable illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.

While the NHS is responsible for treating these illnesses, we in public health are responsible for promoting good health and preventing and protecting against illness, so fewer people need treatment in the first place. To do this, we help fund a whole host of community-led initiatives that empower local residents to take an active role in creating healthier environments by, for example, improving access to green spaces or reducing food waste.

We also know that excess salt and sugar consumption are a leading cause of many of these conditions. As much as 85% of the salt we eat is already in our food when we buy it, and just three types of food – biscuits, confectionery and desserts – are responsible for 60% of the added sugar we eat at home. While our bodies need a little bit of salt to survive, and can process small amounts of free sugar, we are clearly consuming far too much.

Retailers and manufacturers use a myriad of methods to ensure their products are always at the forefront of our minds, including advertising, price discounting, multi-buy promotions and by influencing where products are placed in store and online. As a result, the places where we live, work and relax are flooded with food overloaded with sugar and salt.

Nutritious food is also almost three times more expensive than unhealthy options. This means people with less money are more likely to purchase unhealthy food – not by choice, but out of necessity. In the current financial climate especially, the consequences will be that rates of preventable illness continue to rise. Without action, food preferences will be shaped at such a young age that they cause ongoing ill-health – and therefore demand on health and social care – for generations to come, widening the already unacceptable  20-year gap in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest members of society.

To bring about real change, we need to create an environment that promotes good health and healthy eating. Achieving this will require bold thinking from national and local governments, and collaborative working across all sectors – including the food and drink industry.

On a local level, Directors of Public Health (DsPH) work with a wide range of partners to help create healthier environments. For example, we work with planning departments to limit the number of new unhealthy food outlets, particularly those in close proximity to schools. We also work with schools and early years providers, public sector partners, voluntary and community organisations and businesses to encourage the provision of healthy food. Following the success of Transport for London’s healthy advertising policy, which led to a 20% reduction in purchases of sugary products, many local authorities are introducing similar advertising restrictions.

National action is also needed to mirror local initiatives – for example, marketing and sponsorship regulations should be tightened – so that all of society can be supported to access nutritious food. We also know that many businesses would welcome clarity over rules so they can contribute positively to our wellbeing.

Progress has been made to reduce sugar and salt content in food following the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, but there is further to go and reformulation targets should be mandatory. The Soft Drinks Industry Levy has successfully contributed to reducing sugar consumption but should be expanded to include milk-based sugary drinks and an industry levy to make food healthier should be introduced.

Only through real collaboration will we achieve our goals. We know that the public are supportive and through campaigns like Recipe for Change, the public health community are committed to creating better places for us all to live, work and play in so that we can all live healthier, more productive lives for longer.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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