Brands contributing to obesity solutions need to get local

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About 32% of UK adults are estimated to be obese in 2012, according to the NHS. Brands are already signed up to the government’s Responsibility Deal, but what more can they do?

I heard the alarming statement at a recent Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum on obesity that in some parts of the UK, being overweight is the norm.

Whether brands like it or not – especially if they come from the food and drinks sector – their marketing and product development practices are on the receiving end of finger pointing when many so called experts try to think of reasons as to why this is so.

It was not encouraging to hear McCain Foods’ corporate director Bill Bartlett explain that retailers simply sell what consumers want, and that it is difficult to provide healthier options without changing the taste. “You can’t just change the profile of the nation’s food and expect people to eat it,” he said.

I’ve heard similar things from McDonalds, and clearly a fear of a drop in sales is driving this. But as pressure from the Government and health bodies mounts, not to mention obesity rates, I think brands literally won’t be able to have their cake and eat it. They’ll need to commit with initiatives that will have real results.

That is what local councils will be looking for once they are awarded their own public health budgets from April next year. At the forum, Richard Ciencala from the Department of Health’s obesity unit said that following this, councils will be commissioning more of their own local weight management services and physical activity programmes. Presumably this will build on previous initiatives, such as the Schweppes Free Swim where a Schweppes bottle cap could be redeemed for free entry to a local pool.

An issue that many speakers raised was the lack of accountability when brands get involved in terms of the effectiveness of such initiatives. As one audience member pointed out, will the door that has opened for councils also open up to brands who want to endear themselves to local communities, all the while promoting high fat and sugar products?

However, Ciencala countered this by pointing out that the provision of data and evidence will be key in the administration and assessment of such programmes. More investments will be made in research, he added, with the National Institute for Health research developing a new local measure for adult obesity, based on a national survey. The data will be able to pinpoint the areas of most need for weight management services, and if brands can get hold of it, they can create meaningful programmes with realistic targets that they can work productively with councils on.

Brands such as Weight Watchers have for the past eight years already been working with NHS trusts to administer weight loss programmes to at risk patients. Its head of dietetics and health policy, Zoe Hellman, claimed that Weight Watchers-run programmes achieved better results and were more cost effective than those run by competitors and by the NHS on its own. Naturally she’d say that, but she had the data to prove it.

And so will brands that want to get involved in health at a local council level. The opportunity will be there, but the reality will be that brands will need to have the right data and research to earn their place.

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