The principle of regenerative food systems is that they should be of net benefit to people and the planet. Education and labelling can help create better habits and need to be part of the solution toward better nutrition and improving health.
The development of the modern food system to provide widely available, convenient and pleasurable food at low prices has undoubtedly contributed to rising levels of obesity. Today, obesity affects the health of millions of people in the UK and its social and economic costs are not sustainable.
Reducing obesity is therefore a strategic priority for policy makers, health organisations and industry. There is also broad agreement on the complex and systemic causes of obesity and the need for a joined-up strategy to tackle it.
Public health policy in relation to the food industry has, unfortunately, been contested and at times challenging for over a decade. At the risk of oversimplifying a complex debate, the food and drink manufacturing industry has generally favoured a voluntary approach and opposed regulatory measures; while health organisations have generally argued that voluntary measures alone are insufficient, and that regulation is also required.
Therefore, the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in 2018 was a watershed moment in food policy in the UK, and further regulatory or mandatory measures have followed or are now under consideration.
Nestlé UK has long recognised that voluntary action has limitations as well as strengths, and believes that voluntary action and regulation both have important roles to play within an overall obesity strategy.
The challenge, of course, is to establish a holistic overall obesity strategy and within it to develop well-framed regulation. From Nestlé UK’s perspective, we advocate that food policy and regulation should be developed on a collaborative basis based on four principles – it should:
- achieve public health objectives
- be evidence-based
- create a level playing field for the entire food industry
- incentivise investment in research and development (R&D), new technologies, and innovations that help tackle obesity
A key question we would like to explore is how can we apply the concepts linked to regenerative food systems to support improvements in public health? We are working on three different approaches:
- product reformulation and innovation
- nutritional labelling
But we recognise there are likely to be others.
Key areas for development and new solutions
Nestlé UK has been reformulating its portfolio for over two decades to reduce salt, sugar and fat in its products, and this work continues. We have also used our industry-leading R&D capability to develop new, healthier products. This work frequently operates at the limits of investment returns and current consumer acceptance. In a number of cases, major investment in product reformulation or innovation have not succeeded in the marketplace.So a recurring challenge or question for Nestlé, and the industry generally, is how far can we take the reformulation of our products from a technical, financial and consumer perspective? And how should the opportunities and constraints of reformulation and innovation be reflected in the framing of public policy?
- In the UK, further support for the food and drink sector to reformulate via increased R&D spending is necessary. So should the food industry partner with the government and academics looking to innovate across the food chain for health and environment, including through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) bids?
- Are other measures available to improve private sector investment into R&D?
Nestlé is developing and investing in new, nutritious product lines to ensure that healthy alternatives are readily available. These investments focus on developing foods with lower levels of fat, salt, and sugar as well as favouring vegetable- or plant-based alternatives to meat to promote a more balanced diet.
Education is an essential part of any obesity strategy, and we support the need for education programmes on nutrition to be made mandatory and expanded in both primary and secondary schools. We support nutrition education as a company globally and in the UK, and there are numerous industry education programmes across the country. However, we believe purely voluntary programmes, or purely industry-led programmes, aren’t necessarily the most effective way to achieve the coverage or scale needed, especially in harder to reach places.
So a key question is how can we collectively develop and support nutrition education in schools at the scale needed to help the next generation adopt healthy diets and develop a stronger food culture?
- Is there a role for the food industry to collectively champion Henry Dimbleby’s proposal for an Eat and Learn initiative for schools? We believe this is a very interesting proposal which we and others in the industry could support. Or would it be better left to health experts and education professionals to maintain independence?
- Could we develop greater collaboration between industry and government to support the existing Change4Life campaign? Could we work together to build a series of effective public health messages, built around the Eatwell Guide, that both government and industry can promote?
The UN's Food Systems Summit emphasises that labelling must be convenient, relevant, and readily understood to assist consumers and particularly children, as well as promote reformulation1.
In the UK, Nestlé UK was an early adopter of the Government's traffic light labelling system and has always championed the importance of consistent, transparent nutritional labelling designed to help consumers make informed choices more easily.
The traffic light labelling scheme has now been in wide adoption in the UK market for several years. Health experts and policy makers have been taking stock of its effectiveness and assessing the merits of alternative labelling schemes around the world.Is the UK's current traffic light labelling scheme the best option for the future, or are there alternative schemes which the UK could or should adopt, such as the Nutri-Score system, which has proved to be effective at directing consumer choices towards healthier options?