With the focus back on national obesity levels, we asked Holly Gabriel, Nutrition Campaigner at Action on Sugar about the priorities during the early stages of the pandemic as well as a look to the future to what needs to happen next to make continued progress in the reduction of sugar.
How has Action on Sugar responded to the Covid-19 crisis?
Everyone staying safe and well has of course been the priority, but we were initially concerned at the shift away from important public health priorities. There seemed to be less focus on the importance of good nutrition, especially during lockdowns when people are potentially moving less, finding less food on the supermarket shelves and seeing a rise in delivery services promoting unhealthy options.
Action of Sugar placed a focus on monitoring emerging issues such as misleading claims on immunity in the media and food and drink companies taking advantage of the situation to sell products. When clear evidence emerged suggesting obesity and related health conditions are risk factors for worse outcomes for Covid-19, we saw some vital policies put back on the table as the Prime Minister took somewhat of a U-turn in light of his own experiences and growing evidence.
In April 2020 we put a call out to ban the marketing of food high in fat, salt or sugar during the pandemic. We ran a public focused social media campaign to give advice on healthy eating and to gather insight on habit changes during lock-down, and exposed irresponsible practices and breaches such as pringles advertising to children on Joe’s Wickes YouTube channel. We wrote to the Prime Minister in response to the association between obesity and Covid-19, and the need for prevention policies plus immediate interventions on obesity for all, not just children.
What are the priority areas for your work over the next 6 months?
Reformulation programmes were omitted from recent obesity announcements by Government, and there is much uncertainty about the future of Public Health England. With that in mind we will be focussing on:
- Ensuring that reformulation programmes such as the sugar and calorie reduction are kept high on the priority list during any restructure.
- Continue to campaign for the soft drinks industry levy to be increased and extended to other categories of drinks such as milkshakes.
- Ensuring the Government follows through with their commitment to implement a 9pm watershed.
- Ensuring we respond to consultations on new measures announced.
- Continue to monitor the food and drink industry, to highlight irresponsible product development and lack of progress towards reformulating products to improve their nutritional quality.
If you could change one thing to have the greatest impact on obesity levels in the UK, what would it be?
To have an impact on obesity levels, UK governments must act on previous commitments to address the obesity crisis that the nation faced prior to Covid-19, and will continue to face if government drag their feet. A whole systems approach is essential to reducing obesity and related conditions and to reduce widening inequalities which have been brought further to the fore in the wake of Covid-19. We provided the Government with ten evidence-based recommendations to support the nation to reach and maintain a healthy weight, without placing responsibility solely on the individual but rather by changing the environment we currently live in. These recommendations included increasing access and funding for evidence-based weight loss support, ensuring only healthy products are advertised and promoted, and adopting fiscal measures to promote healthy food (with income ringfenced to subsidise treatments).
A year from now, what do you hope we will have achieved in the reduction of sugar intake?
Sugar reduction policies in the UK which support the population in consuming no more than the recommended 5% of total energy from free sugars, will never be achieved if we continue to see food and drink companies producing products that contain 3 or 4 times the recommended maximum sugar intake for an adult, even more for a child, in one serving and often with no nutrition information available. We need comprehensive and mandatory reformulation programmes to reduce sugar AND calories that is robustly monitored by a new, independent and transparent food watchdog to ensure that sugar consumption is reduced on a population level.
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