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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?

Comments
Member

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

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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?

Member

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.

Member

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.

Member

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.