When policymakers realised a few years just how fast obesity rates were rising, food companies were caught off guard.
Criticised for producing too much junk food, makers of fizzy drinks, chocolate and crisps claimed the obesity epidemic was not their fault. Lack of exercise, not diets, was the problem, food companies said.
But early attempts to dodge responsibility backfired as the extent of the obesity problem became clear.
The World Health Organisation considers obesity an epidemic. Adult obesity is now more common globally than under-nutrition and is the third-biggest cause of premature death and disability in the affluent world after smoking and high blood pressure, according to the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO).
Meanwhile, a green paper on public health launched by the UK’s Conservative Party this month said Britain had the highest obesity rates in Europe, with a quarter of adults and a sixth of children now considered obese.
Alarmed at how fast obesity rates were rising, governments put pressure on food companies to cut back on fats, salts and sugars.
PepsiCo today claims its European business has “dramatically” changed the ingredients that go into its food products, with its Walkers crisp brand containing 70 per cent less saturated fat and up to 55 per cent less salt than it did five years ago.
The snacks and soft drinks group says it is introducing a range of dry roasted nuts in the Netherlands with 30 per cent less fat and investing €20m ($28m) in a new European research and development centre to invent healthier snacks.
Kraft, the US food group, says it has reformulated or launched more than 5,000 “healthier choices” since 2005, including reducing salt levels in its UK Dairylea cheese range by 30 per cent since 2002.
Companies have also voluntarily cut back on the marketing of junk foods to children following government pressure.
In the UK, the Conservatives’ green paper is calling for the food industry’s self regulatory marketing code to be extended across all media – including online – and an “an agreed form of robust evaluation”.
Food companies are today more willing than they used to be to admit they need to share responsibility for tackling the obesity problem.
Mella Frewen, the director general of the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the European Union, says: “There’s no silver bullet … we’re aware we have an important role to play.”
Despite concerns the recession would encourage companies to backtrack on commitments to provide healthier foods to save money, companies say they remain committed to removing fats, salts and sugars and developing healthier products – even as some continue to argue their products are not at fault.
Kellogg’s claims breakfast cereals – which it says contain less sugar than a slice of buttered toast and jam – reduce weight.
“People who eat breakfast cereals, regardless of sugar content, are slimmer than those who don’t,” says Tim Mobsby, president of Kellogg Europe.
Many food companies are promoting programmes that encourage healthier lifestyles in schools.
Nestlé, Mars and Ferrero have been supporting a French programme called EPODE (Ensemble prévenons l’obésité des enfants or Together let’s prevent childhood obesity) that is being extended from France to Spain, Belgium and Greece.
The programme, which involves four European universities as well as the European Commission, claims to be “behaviour-centred” and gets families involved in discussions with dieticians over the food that children are being fed.
Still, obesity specialists say the food industry’s efforts at reformulating products and reducing portion sizes are not enough to bring obesity rates down.
Neville Rigby, an independent consultant on obesity and health policy, says: “The food industry has failed to make healthier products the mainstream offering …it must do more.”
Mr Rigby criticises confectionery and snack foods makers for continuing to promote their products, such as offering three for the price of two, as well as introducing processed foods into emerging markets where people have traditionally had a healthier diet due to the absence of manufactured foods.
Tim Lobstein, policy director for the IASO, argues that companies need to make fewer processed foods and switch to products made from fresh fruits, legumes and other vegetables.
“There’s a fundamental contraction in the commercial work which is trying to sell us more food while the message should be to eat less,” Mr Lobstein adds.
Obesity activists are, however, getting support from unexpected quarters.
As makers of bottled water have come under attack for contributing to environmental problems by selling water packaged in plastic, they have fought back by arguing that water is a healthy alternative to soft drinks.
Swiss food group Nestlé, which owns bottled water brands such as Perrier and Poland Spring, says: “Our product is probably the healthiest beverage when you consider the growing concern of obesity.”
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