The UK government’s childhood obesity plan, launched last autumn, gives soft drinks manufacturers two years to reduce sugar levels in fizzy drinks, and food manufacturers until 2020 to reduce it by 20% (5%in the first year), or face a levy.
Whether such measures will make the slightest bit of difference remains, however, a moot point. A sugar tax would have to be really high to force lasting change. Nevertheless, it will have an impact on the food sold in Scotland, and it’s expected that restrictions on fat and salt content will follow. Smaller portions are also being encouraged (the energy density of the average diet in Scotland is around 40% above dietary goals).
With its own new obesity strategy, expected later this year, the Scottish government has been urged to go further and impose stricter regulations on junk food promotions (although TV advertising is a reserved matter and control of supermarkets remains elusive).
Evidently, the free market isn't going to solve our health crisis.
Meanwhile, Scotland’s growing army of small-to-medium food and drink producers is busy liaising with academics and scientists to voluntarily find ways of reformulating existing and future products while retaining their flavour. Their work is both enlightening and encouraging.
The Food and Drink Federation Scotland (FDFS)’s reformulation common interest group of around 50 producers, in partnership with Interface, got together last week in Edinburgh to discuss developments and ideas. It sounded like more of a call to arms. As FDFS CEO David Thomson reminded them, these Scottish producers have the opportunity to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.
Some have already taken new reformulations to market. The cake and biscuit manufacturer Macphie of Glenbervie, for example, has a turnover of £50m and 40% of that is in cake mixes sold to bakeries and coffee shop chains throughout the UK. It is selling muffin mix and frosting that contains the sweetener fibre-inulin, which has reduced the sugar content to 29.5% compared to around 50% in other mixes. Bon Accord soft drinks of Edinburgh don’t contain refined sugar at all.
Successful trials are ongoing where alginates from seaweed are incorporated into bread to help consumers lose weight. At Edinburgh University, fat replacement research is ongoing. Aberdeen, Abertay, Glasgow and West of Scotland universities are among thoose also engaged with producers and manufacturers, using Interface - which connects organisations from a wide range of industries to Scotland's 23 higher education and research institutes - to make connections.
Health by stealth – reformulating foods without shouting about it – avoids the potential for rejection by a largely human-rights-savvy, nanny-state-resistant, millennial public. On the other hand, simply making bad foods such as pies, burgers, cakes and biscuits less bad for you doesn’t necessarily help re-educate us into making better food choices. Neither, it’s argued, does reducing portion size. Cutting out sugar while retaining sweetness, for example, doesn’t stop people craving it.
The unanswered question is this. Can consumer behaviour really change for the better if we can continue to have our cake and eat it?
* A version of this article first appeared in The Herald. Cake image @BBCFood.