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We’re in a global diet-related health crisis

Frying pan with world map

It’s World Consumer Rights Day and Consumers International is calling on governments to support a global convention to fight diet-related ill health. Here’s Amanda Long on why this is a global crisis.

Obesity has become a common news story in the UK. Headlines highlight shocking new levels of obesity and the pressure it’s putting on the NHS. The finger is pointed at companies whose products are laden with fat, sugar or salt; or at consumers who ‘should know better’.

What many people may be unaware of, however, is the extent to which this diet-related health crisis is a global phenomenon. It may not be a surprise that rising levels of obesity in the US and parts of Europe have mirrored the experience of the UK. But what is less well known is that developing countries are also now experiencing the same phenomenon.

Rates of obesity and other diet-related diseases, such as heart disease and diabetes, are sky-rocketing in developing countries. There are now almost twice as many overweight and obese people in developing countries. South Africa has a higher rate of obesity than the UK. Regionally, North Africa, the Middle East and Latin America all have overweight and obese rates on a par with Europe.

The point is that this is a truly global crisis.

Skewed towards an unhealthy diet

Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. If you wanted to increase someone’s intake of calories, fat, sugar and salt, what would you do? You would probably create the type of food environment that we live in now.

Open a magazine, switch on the television or go to your local supermarkets and you will be bombarded with advertisements for unhealthy products. Sugary drinks and foods high in fat, salt and sugar are available everywhere and are often more affordable than healthy alternatives. Packaged foods are also often marketed so that they look healthier than they are.

The fact is that at the moment in the UK, and in many other countries, everything is skewed towards promoting a diet that is making us sick.

Better food labelling

Unfortunately the change in our diets has been so dramatic that it is impossible to put your finger on one cause for the diet-related health crisis that we are facing now, but there are tools that we know can help.

In the UK, the government and companies are beginning to respond with a variety of initiatives to help consumers choose healthier diets. You’ve probably noticed traffic light labelling on the front of food packaging, or calorie labelling in some coffee shops and fast food chains.

If you are a parent or grandparent you might have also noticed a reduction in the number of junk food adverts during children’s television programmes.

Choosing a healthy diet

This World Consumer Rights Day consumer groups around the world are highlighting this urgent consumer issue and asking governments to support consumers to choose a healthier diet.

We want to hear from you about the challenges you face in choosing healthy diets. Is it easy and convenient to find food that is healthy? Do you feel bombarded by marketing for less healthy food? If you have younger children or grandchildren, how do their diets differ from what you ate?

This is a guest post by Amanda Long, Director General of Consumers International. All opinions are Amanda’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


I think ‘Eat Less’ should be the first lesson.

Not so many years ago, most meals had to be cooked or otherwise prepared. Now we have ready meals that just need to be heated and a huge variety of snack food that does not even need warming. There are now far more opportunities to eat out, and the portion sizes are often large because that’s what most customers want. Supermarkets urge us to buy in quantity, with sweets in multipacks and two litre bottles of Coca Cola to wash them down with.

As John says, we need to eat less. That can be difficult when so much easy to eat food is all around us.

I’ve just noticed, looking at the clever world-in-a-frying-pan picture for this Conversation, that someone’s eaten the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland. The whole lot; all gone. Are we really here still? This is surreal.

The answer surely is not too difficult.

1. Ban food and drink advertising completely from newspapers, magazines, TV, publically visible spaces and radio.
2. Allow restaurants to advertise their name and type of cuisine only
3. All eating places must advise how much food is brought in prepared – as per the French.

As no doubt the advertising industry will try to add placements to programmes these will be excised before broadcast.

It cannot be a complete cure but it will improve the landscape and many peoples diets.

Without a doubt, it is the manufacturers who must take most of the blame with a small mitigation for the poor research and advice that has been given over recent years.

Just a brief walk down the breakfast cereal isle of a large supermarket gives you a good glimpse of the scale of the problem. What were once good, healthy cereals have now been totally destroyed by chocolate and/or sugar. Many are labelled to confuse the consumer into believing that they are healthy when they blatantly are not.

Then there is the hidden enemies such as sugar in its many guises, salt, E numbers and hosts of other additives that you would never add to freshly cooked food.

‘Healthy’ margarines (spreads) were forced down our throats for decades in the belief that butter was bad and spreads were good. It turns out that butter is good and some of the spreads were loaded with trans fats that are extremely unhealthy.

And all those additives that are suppose to be good for the gut and/or lower cholesterol are an unproven additive that if they were to do you any good you would need to eat a mountain of them a day. At least the EU has stopped them making their outrageous claims any more.

And what has the government done?

Terfar – The problem with trans-fats was largely with margarine, where vegetable oils were solidified by partial hydrogenation. Once the problem was understood, the large manufacturers acted promptly and removed trans-fats from foods sold in the UK. It’s now years since I have seen partially hydrogenated vegetable oil on ingredient labels. On the other hand, butter, other dairy products and meats do contain natural trans-fats. It has been suggested that this may be better than man-made trans-fats, but there is no convincing evidence of this at the present time. The balance of evidence available is still to limit the daily intake of saturated fats.

E-numbers can be either colours or preservatives. Colours are used to make food more attractive and are not essential. On the other hand, preservatives are used for various purposes, the most important being to keep food when it is stored. Sodium nitrite (E250) and potassium nitrite (E249) are used in sausages and cooked meats to prevent growth of hazardous bacteria, which is why it is a legal requirement to use one of them. Some preservatives (e.g. propionates in bread) can be eliminated, but the shelf life is shorter. The reason we don’t need preservatives in freshly cooked food is that it is not stored for any length of time.

We do indeed have the EU to thank for helping get rid of unsubstantiated claims about health benefits, and Which? has done its bit too.

Although trans-fats were removed from margarine, they still occur in some cooking processes – particularly frying oil. I agree that we should limit the intake of saturated fats, but then we should be limiting the intake of most food stuff – even so called super foods (a rubbish, meaningless expression) as too much of anything is bad for you.

Fortunately, being retired we now have time to ensure that virtually all our food is fresh and healthy. It wasn’t the case when we were both working and had three children. Busy families have to take shortcuts and that is why the government should start taking a more serious look at all prepared foods and force the manufacturers to make them more healthy. I find it abominable that so much sugar is loaded into ‘innocent’ food stuff.

I also believe that the traffic light system should be mandatory, but not as a replacement for an ingredients list, a recommended portion size and the standard contents per 100g table. The traffic light system is clearly a quick way to be alerted to contents whilst shopping. And the recommended portion should be improved because often outrageous claims are made for so called healthy food, but only if the user eats the recommended portion, Breakfast museli and granola are fine examples. Typically people eat three or four times the recommended portion size believing they are eating a healthy breakfast when in fact they are exceeding daily recommended consumption of sugar or fat in one sitting.

The traffic light labelling is used in addition to nutritional information, not to replace it. As you say, it is a way to alert you to what is in food when shopping. It also has its uses when preparing meals.

You are right about people eating much more than the recommended portion size. I believe that the manufacturers must take some of the blame for quoting small portion sizes to conceal the high sugar and fat content of their products.

Are you sure that trans-fats are produced during frying? I have seen claims on websites, but I don’t know of scientific evidence to back this up. It’s not something I have paid attention to because I do little high temperature cooking.

The only time I buy ‘superfoods’ if they have been heavily discounted for immediate sale.

BEUC’s take on the problem. I was struck by the yoghurt sugar figure – disgusting.

“WHO calls on slashing sugar consumption
PRESS STATEMENT – 05.03.2015
In its guidelines published yesterday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) has reiterated adults and children consume too much sugar. The United Nations health body advises daily sugar consumption should be slashed to between 5 and 10% of total energy intake, equating to 6-12 teaspoons.
In many EU countries populations’ intake exceeds the 10% limit. Europeans’ current sugar consumption varies from between 7 to 17% of their energy intake.
Monique Goyens, BEUC’s Director General, commented:
“The WHO hammers that we still ingest too much sugar. Unfortunately, consumers have no idea of how much sugar they eat, most of it being hidden in processed foods and drinks, hard to spot on labels.
“One would never add 4 to 5 teaspoons of sugar to a cup of tea or coffee. But this could be the amount you can ingest by eating a single yoghurt.
“It is reassuring that the WHO has sugar overconsumption on its radar. We hope these guidelines will inspire the food industry to cut down sugar in their products and policy makers to take bold actions to tackle obesity and overweight, especially among children.”
See also:
BEUC’s response to WHO consultation, March 2014
BEUC’s position paper on nutrition, February 2015

“Unfortunately, consumers have no idea of how much sugar they eat, most of it being hidden in processed foods and drinks, hard to spot on labels.”

I don’t think that is fair. The amount of sugar in manufactured food is shown on the label. Often it is highlighted with traffic light food labels, though there is pressure to abandon these labels.

My suggestion would be to leave the added sugar out of yoghurt. If we want to add sugar or sweetener we can manage to do this for ourselves, just as we do with tea and coffee.

I think that BEUC may needed to have expanded on the matter. I know that the sugar contained in drinks as in wines beers and brandy is an area not covered.

Unfortunately the adage “You can take a horse to water … ” applies very strongly as people like what they like, and not reading labels on your favourite foods is high on that list. Consider that smoking, with the assistance of advertising, managed to defy rational behaviour for decades.

Advertising is the key.

The benefit of the traffic light labelling system is that it highlights foods that have a high sugar content, etc. That’s probably enough for people in a reasonable state of health.


It was interesting to see how sugar-laden sauces are. The other point that I did not run with was the early habituation to sugared meals.

Associated Press have done an interesting expose on Coca-Cola and its paid agents who insert articles into thousands of sites.

Paste this into a search engine and it will be the top listed unpaid entry – well it is in Google!

Some people manage to quit smoking but it is less common for them to cut down on the amount they smoke. Some stop taking sugar in tea and coffee, but few cut down the amount they take.

It is probably most effective to encourage people to eliminate the most unhealthy foods from their diet rather than getting them to cut down.

You won’t stop the multinationals from marketing unsuitable foods whilst people demand it. They are far too powerful. We need to attack them like we did the tobacco companies by educating people in what unhealthy foods are and making it less acceptable to consume them – whether when buying supermarket food or eating out. Ditch the high fat high sugar foods – persuade restaurants to produce healthy memus and supermarkets to focus on better prepared food. Slowly we might begin to improve diets. But if we allow McDonalds and Coca Cola to dominate franchises at high-profile sporting events like the Olympics, what hope is there?

McDonalds offers healthy food – it’s not all deep fried or laced with sugar. Coca Cola sells quite a lot of Diet Coke, judging from the cans that litter the streets. Unfortunately, they still sell a lot of unhealthy food because that’s what most people want. Most people want large portions too, though smaller portions are sometimes advertised or available on request.

You are right that we must prevent large food retailers having any involvement in events, but governments are very much under control of industry, which is appalling.

The manufacturers will not cut down their added sugars and
salt as affecting their shelf life and maintaining their profit

As long as we continue to consume more calories than we burn off through exercise obesity will continue to increase unabated, which fundamentally means ditch the car the sofa and the computer, maybe buy a dog and walk more. A complete change is needed which realistically is very unlikely to happen in today’s 21st century lifestyle and food producers will continue to advertise and sell food based on taste rather than its nutritional content.

Beryl, in a world shortage of food it might be better to reduce the number of pets. And those who own pets seem to have just as irresponsible an attitude towards their diet as to their own. Apparently the obesity problem is worst in dogs, with vets reporting that 45 per cent of those they treat are obese or overweight. The situation is little better in cats (40 per cent). Some chance, then, of burning off calories with these as your companions! 🙂

Malcolm, there is more than enough food to go round if it were distributed equally and fairly. Problems with shortages are mainly due to natural environmental disasters and/or government ideologies and tyranny in certain parts of the globe, plus a human tendency towards avariciousness.

I have yet to see a fat greyhound or a whippet so might recommend one of those rather than a “pooch” if you are seriously interested in losing the pounds!

Charlie says:
26 March 2015

I’ve just watched the American documentary Fed Up. Their argument is pretty compelling that the food industry in America has bought out the governement, who is complicit in, condoning the actions of, and extorted by, the processed food industry. Britain is very close behind. Please Which?, do a campaign against this industry, as you can’t have a healthy nation if it’s hijacked at every turn by bright lights, food as entertainment, sugar – cartoon characters, junk food companies infiltrating schools etc etc etc. Please. In 50 years or less we will wonder why we let this happen, in the same way we now know about tabacco and let that industry lie to us for 50 years. Come on, it’s a no-brainer. Real food, cooking at home, understanding home economics, healthy school food and less of this horrible stuff, and the nhs will be fine.

[This comment has been slightly tweaked to align with our commenting guidelines. Thanks, mods]

Hi Charlie, thanks for your post – We really understand your views, so I’ve passed your comments to our Campaigns team for their consideration.

Charlie says:
27 March 2015

Brilliant news! Thank you for your consideration. 🙂

No problem Charlie 🙂 Have a good weekend!

I’m very much against processed food but let’s not pretend that everyone ate a healthy diet in earlier generations. White bread, home-made cakes and biscuits containing every bit as much sugar and fat as what we buy in the supermarket. Many ate fewer vegetables and fruit than we do nowadays. We had home-fried food instead of fried food from fast-food outlets. Perhaps the biggest difference is that when food is prepared for us it is much easier to overeat than when we prepared and cooked our own food. And we did not have much TV etc. to discourage us from going out and getting exercise.

The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends no more than 9 teaspoons (38 grams) of added sugar per day for men, and 6 teaspoons (25 grams) per day for women. The AHA limits for children vary depending on their age and caloric needs, but range between 3-6 teaspoons (12 – 25 grams) per day.

Interesting to see women with a much lower recommended sugar intake. As an interesting example of action being taken:


I am disappointed that the government has not taken the advice that fruit juices should not be included as part of our five-a-day portions of fruit and vegetables: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/jan/12/remove-fruit-juice-sugar-five-a-guidance-government-health-adviser

It is very easy to consume a lot of sugar as fruit juice, whereas that’s less likely to happen when eating whole fruit. Fruit juice tends to lack the fibre content of whole fruit too.

Very true wc. An orange fruit juice can make me feel quite ill and I suspect it is the sugar rusu. Nowdays I pretty much avoid them. This from the US illustrates how ridiculously easy it is to have too much sugar:

“Even “healthy” foods can be high in sugar
With as many as 11 teaspoons (46.2 grams) of added sugar in some 12-oz. sodas, a single serving exceeds the AHA recommendation for men and is about twice the allowance for women and children. But sugar isn’t only in beverages and sweet baked goods. Here are some healthy-looking items you might find in the supermarket that also have high sugar contents:
– One leading brand of yogurt contains 7 teaspoons (29 grams) of sugar per serving.
– A breakfast bar made with “real fruit” and “whole grains” lists 15 grams of sugar.
– A single cup of bran cereal with raisins, in a box advertising “no high-fructose corn syrup,” contains 20 grams of sugar per serving.
– A cranberry/pomegranate juice product, also advertising “no high-fructose corn syrup” and “100% Vitamin C,” contains 30 grams of added sugar per 8 oz. serving. Some of the sugar is naturally occurring, but some of it has been added.”

Here is another example. I bought a packet of dried fruit and nut mixture in Lidl. It is intensely sweet, with sugar appearing twice on the ingredients list together with naturally sweet ingredients including raisins, banana and papaya. The total sugar content is 37g per 100g of mixture.

Why is this labelled ‘Wholefoods’? I might ask Lidl.

Names for Sugar

Agave nectar
Barbados sugar
Barley malt
Barley malt syrup
Beet sugar
Brown sugar
Buttered syrup
Cane juice
Cane juice crystals
Cane sugar
Carob syrup
Castor sugar
Coconut palm sugar
Coconut sugar
Confectioner’s sugar
Corn sweetener
Corn syrup
Corn syrup solids
Date sugar
Dehydrated cane juice
Demerara sugar
Evaporated cane juice
Free-flowing brown sugars
Fruit juice
Fruit juice concentrate
Glucose solids
Golden sugar
Golden syrup
Grape sugar
HFCS (High-Fructose Corn Syrup)
Icing sugar
Invert sugar
Malt syrup
Maple syrup
Palm sugar
Powdered sugar
Raw sugar
Refiner’s syrup
Rice syrup
Sorghum Syrup
Sugar (granulated)
Sweet Sorghum
Turbinado sugar
Yellow sugar

That’s an impressive collection of sugars and products with a very high sugar content. 🙂

Dextrin and maltodextrin are oligosaccharides rather than simple sugars and I guess that the same may apply to rice syrup and corn syrup solids. Maltol is not a sugar.

Eating refined carbohydrate such as starch is not much better than eating sugar because it is quickly converted into sugars. This also applies to dextrin etc.


Quite an interesting article and it explodes some myths about weight and fitness. A must read.