Anti-obesity groups call for sugar cuts as retailers take action

The National Obesity Forum is calling for mandatory regulations on fat, salt and sugar content in food and drink as retailers including Tesco and Asda make bids to cut calories and sugar from their products.

The National Obesity Forum (NOF) is pushing its annual National Obesity Awareness Week from 12 to 18 January through a call for mandatory regulations on fat, salt and sugar content in food and drink during a time when people’s attention is largely focused on health.

Tam Fry, a spokesman for the NOF, told Marketing Week: “The food industry is not doing enough. We have so much food with ingredients that are leading to obesity and other diseases and time is running out.”

Fry claims that obesity is costing the UK £47bn a year. In response, the NOF are pushing six recommendations, the main one being the reduction of sugar in food.

“There are high levels of sugar needlessly in food and it’s causing huge damage,” Fry said.

The NOF also believes the front-of-pack traffic light system should be mandatory, despite the fact that the EU recently objected to the use of the scheme, calling it “over simplistic”.

Meanwhile, the British Dietetic Association (BDA) has called for public policies that reduce the frequency and amount of sugary drinks consumed by children and adolescents.

It has also called for a tax on sugary drinks as well as education programmes in a move to reduce obesity.

Retailers and brands take action

Retailers and brands are also taking action to improve the nutrition of their products through low or no sugar alternatives.

Tesco CEO Dave Lewis, speaking last week, said that the supermarket group has removed three billion calories from its products by cutting sugar in an anti-obesity effort. It also removed sweets and treats from all checkouts including those at its smaller Metro and Express stores on 1 January, the first supermarket to do so.

Further, the retailer is trialling a health and wellbeing initiative in four of its stores under the Nutricentre brand it bought in 2001, featuring healthy food offerings and health tours for customers. Tesco will roll out the initiative to all 400 of its Nutricentre locations if it’s a success.

Asda also recently announced that it will remove more than 3.5 billion calories of sugar from its own label soft drinks, reducing the added sugar by 22% by May 2015.

The move is part of Asda’s commitment to Change4Life, Public Health England’s healthy-living campaign that this year is focused on “Sugar Swaps”, encouraging families to swap products for those containing less sugar.

Brands such as Coca-Cola are involved with the initiative as part of its push to convince consumers to make healthier choices. The company has also looked at adding choice for consumers through the introduction of Coke Life, its lower-calorie variant sweetened using Stevia instead of sugar.

Nick Court, director of communications for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), says: “Brands today are being harnessed as a powerful tool to deliver lifestyle advice and to help people to make healthier choices.”

Labour to call for curb on food and drink ads

The anti-obesity campaigns come amid reports in the run-up to the election that the UK Labour Party will call for curbs on advertising of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar in an effort to target obesity in the UK.

“With all the election manifestos being written, we need to say what has to be done from the first day of the new government,” Fry said. “Our fear is that obesity will take a back seat as successive governments have not taken obesity seriously.”

However, Ian Twinn, director of public affairs for advertising body ISBA, says if the rumours are true, advertisers will be very disappointed.

“There is no evidence to suggest that proposals like these would achieve Labour’s policy objective, which is to help tackle obesity,” Twinn says.

Ian Barber, communications director for the Advertising Association, agrees.

“Calls for ad bans ahead of an election are, sadly, to be expected,” he says. “We’ve told all parties how disproportionate advertising restrictions are – considering that the evidence that they’ll make any difference is so weak – and flagged the potential damage to our creative industries.

“It’s critical that our brands, agencies and media work together to challenge these misconceptions, but also to showcase advertising’s positive contribution.”