Downsizing food: Public Health England planning to take drastic measures to cut available calories in the war on obesity

Health officials in England have devised a new plan as they continue their war on obesity.

The Public Health England (PHE) urged companies to cut the calories in popular food items, everything from pizzas to burgers, bags of chips, shop-bought sandwiches, and ready-to-eat meals, to fight obesity among children, according to a Daily Mail report.

PHE, England’s government agency for preventing ill health, drew up targets to cut the calorie content of 75 percent of food on sale in the high street. The government agency is expected to press for a reduction of more than 10 percent which would be achieved by a mixture of reformulation, taking out some high calorie ingredients, and shrinking products.

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, told The Grocer that the attack on calorie counts will dwarf its current campaign on sugar levels.

She said that proposals are being drawn up to take calories out of products such as ready meals, burgers, and bags of chips to test how far the public would go to prioritize a healthy diet. Tedstone mentioned that the PHE would be looking for a double-digit reduction in calories in thousands of products. “The work we have done on sugar has tackled foods responsible for about 25 percent of the calories people eat,” she said.

In the past years, PHE challenged all sectors of the food industry to reduce the amount of sugar in the foods that contribute most to children’s intake, such as chocolate bars, biscuits, and yogurts, by an average of 20 percent. (Related: Children now eating their own weight in processed sugar each year.)

In line with this, a number of popular brands have changed their ingredients or cut the size of chocolate bars or the weight of packs of sweets. One of these brands is Nestle, which reduced the sugar content by 10 percent in a number of its products such as Yorkie and Aero on health grounds, while Toblerone bars and some KitKat brands, Maltesers, M&M’s, and Minstrels were reduced in size.

“It is going to be a test because in the crackdown on sugar, we had three years of huge noise, whereas there hasn’t been that buildup with calories. It has been products that are high in sugar where we have seen things like portion reduction. I don’t see portion reduction happening in pizzas,” Tedstone said.

Moreover, she said that the scale of calorie reduction has not been decided yet, but it would have to be substantial and not below five percent.

The proposal would require a change in the ingredients of some products, while others would have to be cut in size, according to Tedstone.

Consequently, these proposals risk a backlash from both the food industry and consumers. Suspicions arose that a number of food companies use health concerns to shrink their products without cutting prices.

Tedstone said that the efforts by PHE were not only designed to improve the health of individuals, but are also important in terms of the wider economy.

“I hope that people will realize we are already paying for the size of the pizzas we eat in the taxation we pay for dealing with obesity in the NHS (National Health Service). What you eat today, your taxes pay for tomorrow,” she said.

The PHE has no legal powers to force companies to cut calorie levels, but it can call out those that fail to do so. The organization will publish their results in early 2018.

“Too many of our children are growing up obese, which can lead to serious health complications. We all have a responsibility to help people live healthier lives, but with a third of children leaving primary school obese we must take a comprehensive approach and now focus on excess calories,” Philip Dunne, minister of State of Health, said in a press release.

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