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Industry must cut calories in savoury food products by 20%, says Public Health England

BMJ 2018; 360 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k1067 (Published 06 March 2018) Cite this as: BMJ 2018;360:k1067
  1. Abi Rimmer
  1. The BMJ

Public Health England has challenged manufacturers and restaurants to reduce the calorie content of food products that contribute significantly to children’s energy intake by 20% by 2024. It said that meeting the target would save the NHS £4.5bn (€5bn; $6.2bn) and social care £4.48bn.

PHE’s calorie reduction programme, announced on 6 March, aims to cut calories in foods that are not already covered by restrictions that were placed on sugar in 2016 and is part of the government’s childhood obesity strategy.12 Products covered by the programme include pizza, ready meals, readymade sandwiches, processed meat products, and savoury snacks.

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said, “We know that we need to get to these foods because they are the lion’s share of [children’s intake of] calories. Sugar was a way in, but we need [to tackle these foods] to start getting traction on childhood obesity.” She added that though the programme was designed to tackle obesity in children up to the age of 18, in reality it would help everybody. “It will help the whole family: for example, you don’t have a special pizza for your kids, you eat the same pizza as your kids.”

Tedstone said that there were three mechanisms for reducing calories in foods: improving recipes, reducing portion sizes, or both options. “This is not about healthy options. A few healthy options will not help to solve the nation’s obesity problem. We need the regular everyday products to change,” she said.

Tedstone also announced that PHE was for the first time publishing estimates of the amount of excess calories children were consuming. These showed that overweight and obese children were consuming up 500 more kilocalories (2.1 MJ) a day than they needed. “These are quite conservative estimates,” Tedstone said. “This is a lot of [extra] calories . . . an extra meal a day.”

PHE has also launched a campaign to encourage adults to consume no more than 400 kilocalories at breakfast and 600 kilocalories at lunch and dinner. “This is not replacing official calorie guidance,” Tedston said. “This is a handy rule of thumb . . . It’s about having one number in your head when you go and buy a sandwich at lunchtime, for example.”

Russell Viner, officer for health promotion at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said that PHE was right to challenge the food industry to reduce the energy content of its products. “We strongly support the approach as a way of changing the environment to help reduce the number of unnecessary calories that many children consume every day,” he said.

But he added that the new measures needed to be part of a wider package that included “early education on the importance of a balanced diet, encouraging children and young people to exercise regularly and promote healthier food choices, preventing new fast food shops opening near schools, and placing a ban on junk food advertising before the 9 pm watershed.”

Alison Cox, Cancer Research UK’s director of cancer prevention, said that the government must continue to put pressure on the food industry to make healthy choices easier. She said, “Scientific evidence shows that being overweight or obese is the UK’s biggest preventable cause of cancer after smoking and is linked to 13 different types of the disease.

“These targets can make a big difference, as we’ve already seen with the sugary drinks tax. Next on the agenda, we want the government to curb junk food TV adverts before 9 pm to protect young people from the constant promotion of unhealthy foods.”

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