/ Food & Drink, Health

Should companies be forced to make food healthier?

Young woman reaching for a slice of cake from a fridge filled with fruit and vegetables

We’ve been scrutinising our food lately – especially when it comes to food which might not be quite as healthy as it’s made out to be. Are supermarkets and food manufacturers offering enough healthy choices?

This year we’ve looked at sandwiches that contain more fat than you might think, cereals that can be as sugary as sweets and cereal bars that are not necessarily the healthiest start to the day.

We have succeeded in convincing the government and retailers that we need traffic light labels to help people make healthier choices and better understand what is in their food. But shouldn’t our food be better for you in the first place?

In our sandwiches Conversation, commenter Deirdre mentioned that food companies should just use less salt and sugar. That’s what we want to see too. And the government’s Responsibility Deal is trying to achieve this.

Committing to healthier food

The Responsibility Deal is a government initiative whereby food companies sign up to a series of voluntary pledges. The pledges include reducing salt in their foods and encouraging consumers to eat more fruit and vegetables.

But we think that progress is slow and the Responsibility Deal is not ambitious enough to ensure that we really do have healthy choices. We sent an open letter to public health minister Anna Soubry asking for swift action from the government.

Our new report ‘A Taste for Change’ assesses the progress that 20 food companies are making to help me and you ensure that we are not eating more fat, sugar and salt than we realise. The report investigated 10 of the major supermarkets and 10 large food manufacturers including Kraft, Coca Cola, Nestlé and Kelloggs.

We assessed the companies against a variety of criteria, including the action they’ve taken to lower saturated fat, sugar and calorie content and the clarity of their nutrition labelling.

The Co-operative ahead of the pack

We found that The Co-operative is currently leading the way among the ten largest supermarkets for helping its customers eat healthily. It uses the best traffic light scheme and in 2011, 34% of promotions were on healthier products.

Unfortunately, Iceland is lagging behind. It has not committed to reducing salt or calories and is still the only supermarket with no nutrition information on the front of food packaging. It has said it will use the traffic light system in 2013, however.

Red light for food manufacturers

Food manufacturers have generally been less pro-active than retailers, with none of the companies we looked at yet committed to using traffic light labelling.

No company comes out as best or worst across all of the areas, but PepsiCo stands out for scoring high on corporate commitment and one of the companies taking more action on salt, saturated fat and sugar reductions.

We have been working with the government to make sure that the Responsibility Deal has more teeth and really pushes companies to make sure that the food we eat is good for us.

Should the government be passing laws to force companies to take responsibility? Or should companies be left to their own devices to make change voluntarily?

Cameron says:
14 December 2012

No, people need to be responsible for themselves. When I buy chocolate, I don’t buy it for health. A bigger problem is misleading labels and packaging, things that are promoted or appear to be healthy when they are not, this takes away people free choice if they are trying to choose healthy food and end up with rubbish.

Legislation is needed to clean up misleading the public on many foods e.g. a Tin of John West Stewed Steak has a great photo it leads you to believe you are buying a Tin of Stewed Steak you only
get 65% meat content the rest is all kinds of this and that.It is most misleading It is NOT WHAT IT SAYS ON THE TIN John West Stewed Steak!. Only when you read the tiny small print on the back of the tin do you find out what you are actually buying.I am against extra tax on healthy foods but the food industry does need to clean its act up Misleading Labels is a national SCANDAL !.

Why don’t people read the labels properly? If the label tells you it is 65% meat content how is it misleading – doesn’t make it not stewed steak does it? At home you would stew it in something…water, stock etc and then maybe thicken it with some flour – OK not likely to be only 65% beef but…. The ingredients list tells you what is in products and the same named product may well contain different levels of value ingredients. It is called having a choice. For instance some tomato soups have water as the first ingredient (so that is the heaviest thing in the product) some have tomato plus the ingredients list will tell you the percentage of tomato both are tomato soup….but I expect one will be cheaper….up to the customer to make an informed choice.

The labels do not give all the information needed to make an informed choice. The amounts of ingredients are not stated unless these feature in the name or product description on the front of the pack. I doubt that ‘mechanically separated meat’ features in ingredient lists and some benign description will be used instead to help conceal the truth.

I’m surprised that the food industry does not label water as ‘aqua’ like cosmetics producers do. Water seems too honest.

Kate i did read the label that’s how i found out only 65%Stewed Steak but just exactly of that Steak is actually really known by the manufacturer because its a grey area manufacturer can get away with putting other meat and declaring it as part of the 65%Stewed Steak.On the front of the Tin it says John West Stewed Steak but it is not what it says on the Tin. One should not have to read all the small print on the back to actually find out what you are buying.Our laws are not tough enough in the UK because the Food industry has a very powerful Lobby and the Government run scared.

Many people think food has zero VAT. However, the following are standard-rate (20%)
* alcoholic drinks
* confectionery
* crisps and savoury snacks
* hot food
* sports drinks
* supplies of food made in the course of catering including hot takeaways
* ice cream
* soft drinks
* mineral water

A ban can be hard to agree and needs international cooperation. While that debate continues, manufacturers should be told high fat and high salt foods will no longer be able to claim a zero rate.

I think its just a matter of time before the Government introduce VAT on all food.They are running out of ideas what to TAX next i agree they need to be tough on unhealthy foods but the food Lobby is very powerful so its most unlikely you get what you are looking for Bob.I would like to see a Stealth Tax on
Dangerous High Heel Women’s shoes stilettos etc etc.I expect it costs the N H S a fortune fixing Twisted& Broken ankles or they should be charged for treatment added to that not being to go to there work if they are lucky enough to have a Job.