Former Environment Minister says UPFs just one factor in obesity

FORMER Environment Minister, George Eustice, has used a column in The Grocer to intervene in the discussion over ultra-processed foods and obesity.

Promoting the article on LinkedIn, Eustice said “Obesity is a complex phenomenon and there are no magic remedies.” He said that he believes there are flaws in arguments put forward by campaigners, but that government and industry could work together to “build on the success of previous responsibility deals and extend successful campaigns such as that run by Vegpower.”

Eustice said, “There are truths that all can agree on. It would be preferable if the average diet contained more fruit, vegetables and fish, and fewer calories. In an era of sedentary lifestyles, the average person is consuming around 400 calories per day more than they need. A culture of healthier eating, more exercise and smaller portion sizes is the principal solution to obesity.

“In recent years the idea that something termed ‘ultra processed foods’ is to blame has become prevalent. It is not a new concern and was first advanced in the 1930s. The valid intellectual case is less about obesity but, rather, whether processed foods can support a healthy microbiome in the human gut.

“It is sometimes argued that ‘ultra-processed’ foods are calorie dense and do not sate appetites in the way that freshly prepared food does, so people consume too much. There is some merit to this argument but it’s also a generalisation.

“Some processed foods, principally confectionery, are calorie dense but not all processed foods are. For example, at the opposite end of the spectrum, noodles are very low in calories but do sate the appetite. Indeed, many of the fasting diets that have become fashionable in recent years rely on processed dried noodles to replace certain meals.

In his article in The Grocer Eustice adds that he “once received a briefing from public health officials containing a graph that showed a sharp rise in the consumption of crisps and breakfast cereals. This was advanced as circumstantial evidence that they were to blame for obesity. However, what their graph actually showed was that crisp and breakfast cereal consumption grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s, peaking in 1995, but then falling by around 15% in the years after. So, whatever is causing obesity, it isn’t crisps or cereals.

He adds that “In 2016, public health officials insisted sugary Soft Drinks were the primary cause of childhood obesity. It was argued that if we could take sugar out of these drinks, it would be a game-changer. Ministers acted on this advice with the soft drinks levy, and some of the best food scientists in the world got to work on reformulation. At one level, the policy was a phenomenal success. Around 80% of sugar has been removed from soft drinks. But there is an awkward problem: it wasn’t the game-changer public health officials predicted. The obesity trend among children has continued unabated in the six years since its introduction.”

On LinkedIn Eustice said “Bizarrely, bread has now started to be blamed by some but Britain is blessed with the most technically proficient bread industry in the world. The three big brands, Hovis, Kingsmill and Warburtons would each be world beating and all three are here in the UK. Public Health officials know where to go when they want to fortify the national diet with folic acid, calcium or vitamins. In recent years bread manufacturers have also single handedly delivered a significant increase in unprocessed seeds in the national diet through the advent of “seeded” product lines.”

Eustice finishes by saying that shortly before leaving government he had been “working on a plan to underpin responsibility deals with a loose statutory obligation for business to contribute to solving this problem in a way that worked for the individual business – either by reformulation, reduced portion size or contributing to positive advertising campaigns. I hope the government continue to explore this.”


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