Calorie labelling is welcome, but it won’t solve the obesity crisis

Compulsory labels can’t alone turn the tide, says RCN’s Helen Donovan

Compulsory labels can’t alone turn the tide, says RCN's Helen Donovan

Picture: iStock

What we eat is both central to our health and well-being and very much part of our social culture. But the amount and types of food we consume are contributing to an obesity epidemic in the UK, which has serious consequences for us, our children and our communities.

So how can we counter this?

Traffic light system

The voluntary traffic light labelling system on food that we buy in supermarkets and shops, introduced by the government in 2013, has had some positive effects. The system uses red, amber and green labels to show whether levels of fat, sugar and salt are high, medium or low, based on the amount per 100g. Sometimes information about calorie levels is also included.

But because such food labelling is voluntary under EU regulations, food manufacturers are not obliged to comply with this system. There have therefore been calls, notably from consumer group Which?, to make labelling which could encourage healthier choices mandatory post-Brexit.

The government has decided to make calorie labelling compulsory for food served outside the home - meaning any outlet where food and drink is prepared for immediate consumption by the person buying it. In September the Department of Health and Social Care launched a consultation into how to implement these changes. The consultation document points out that a recent Cochrane review of the evidence found that providing consumers with information about the calorie content of foods and drinks they consume when eating out can help them to lower their calorie intake. There is also strong public demand for calorie labelling. 

The legislation will cover places such as restaurants, pubs, cafes and takeaway outlets, as well as online businesses that sell takeaway and home delivered food and drink. Everything is included, from main courses to side dishes, toppings and self-serve buffets.

Changing eating habits

Such schemes are already in place in the United States and parts of Australia. The evidence on the impact of particular initiatives can be difficult to quantify.

However, in one Australian state, where calorie/kilojoule labelling has been required by law since 2011, it was clear within a couple of years that significant numbers of people were changing their eating habits as a result of the law and other initiatives, and choosing foods containing fewer calories.

‘Getting people to make healthier choices when eating out or ordering a takeaway is only part of the battle’

Similar results were achieved in New York City; once displaying calorie/kilojoule information on fast food menus was enforced, customers who used the information noticeably cut down their calorie intake. The results are so promising that Northern Ireland is expected to have calorie labelling laws in place by 2020.

So will such legislation work here? Compulsory calorie labelling in food outlets is certainly a good idea. The number of people who consume food outside the home in the UK is huge: surveys from the Food Standards Agency show that 96% of people eat out regularly – 43% of us at least once or twice a week – and the numbers are rising.

In March 2017, a study by the charity Cancer Research UK found that the UK population consumed more than 100 million takeaways and ready-made meals a week, and about 18% of meals were eaten outside the home.

However, getting people to make healthier choices when eating out or ordering a takeaway is only part of the battle.

The cost of funding cuts

Obesity is one of the biggest causes of ill health in our society, contributing to heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer. According to figures from NHS Digital’s 2016 Health Survey for England, 61% of adults were classified as overweight or obese.

Obese women are more than ten times more likely to develop type 2 diabetes than their healthy weight counterparts, and obese men five times more likely. Not only does this have a significant impact on quality of life, it also costs the NHS billions, and rising.

‘Even as the government plans its compulsory calorie labelling, preventive services such as obesity clinics are being slashed as public health funding continues to dwindle’

Childhood obesity is one of the biggest health problems in the UK and around the world. NHS Digital’s 2017-18 National Child Measurement Programme report revealed almost a quarter of children in England are overweight or obese by the time they start primary school at around the age of five. This rises to a third of children by the time they head for secondary school at age 11.

Yet even as the government plans its compulsory calorie labelling, preventive services such as obesity clinics are being slashed as public health funding continues to dwindle.

Preventive services make sense 

The RCN is calling for a reversal of cuts to public health spending  because we desperately need more school nurses and health visitors to help address childhood obesity.

Reducing road speed limits to make walking to school safer, creating more green space for play and exercise, and using urban planning to reduce the number of fast food outlets near schools are just some of the preventive initiatives taken up by local authorities. But this invaluable preventive work has been degraded as a result of cut after cut to local authority budgets. 

Preventive care is not an optional extra. Keeping people healthy for longer makes good sense, not only for patients but also for the public purse.

Compulsory calorie labelling is welcome, but to truly get to grips with the obesity crisis, government ministers must develop properly funded and accountable preventive services.



Helen Donovan is RCN professional lead for public health

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