It’s not the nanny state that should alarm us, it’s the gluttonous food industry giants | Sonia Sodha


More than 5,000 calories. According to one survey of festive habits, that’s the order of what the average person consumes on Christmas Day. Many of us will apparently have downed a day’s worth of calories before we even sit down for the main event.

So it was with impeccably guilt-inducing timing that the Telegraph splashed a story across its front page on Boxing Day morning about the restaurant and ready meal “calorie caps” that are supposedly about to be introduced. Cue shrill tabloid columns about the nanny-state calorie police curbing our right to stuff our faces. “These demands are worthy of Nero or Caligula,” lamented the folk over at rightwing thinktank the Institute of Economic Affairs. And it gave cabinet minister Liz Truss the chance to crack a joke. “I’m too busy eating #leaveusalone #boxingday,” she tweeted. Ho-ho-ho.

But overeating is no laughing matter. Sure, overindulging for a couple of days a year isn’t going to kill anyone, but the excess calories some of us take on day in, day out are more worrying. The figures are less spectacular than the Christmas Day gorgefest, but they add up: on average, men aged 31-60 consume 285 excess calories a day. And overweight and obese boys aged 11-15 consume on average almost 500 too many calories a day.

This is fuelling a public health crisis. One in three children leaves primary school overweight or obese. We’re the most obese nation in western Europe, and the sixth fattest in the OECD, with obesity levels rising even faster than in the US. Obesity is associated with a lifetime of health complications, including type 2 diabetes and cancer – potential killers that are not only horrible to live with, but horribly expensive to treat. Obesity is second only to smoking as a cause of preventable deaths and costs the NHS more than £6.1bn a year.

If anything, the proposed approach by Public Health England doesn’t go far enough. Despite the Telegraph’s best attempts to whip up outrage, there aren’t going to be any compulsory restrictions on food manufacturers. Rather, the approach is voluntary; the food industry as a whole will be set targets to reduce average calories by 20% for convenience foods such as pizzas by 2024, with the vague threat of unspecified tougher action if they don’t act. What the Telegraph got its hands on was the set of calorie guidelines, not caps, which food manufacturers are being consulted about, likely to change before they get published.

This voluntary approach has been tried and tested with sugar and been found lacking. While there has been some progress in reducing sugar in foods, progress has been slow and too reliant on a handful of responsible manufacturers that want to do the right thing. The others know that, for now, there’s little penalty for failing to play along. This is in stark contrast to the impressive impact the fizzy-drinks tax quickly had on sugar levels in those drinks.

Instead, we should be pushing for the tougher approach taken with salt in 2006, when salt-reduction targets were set for food manufacturers. While they were officially voluntary, there was much more monitoring and naming and shaming if manufacturers failed to meet them. This had an impact; between 2001 and 2011, people’s average daily salt intake fell from 9.5g to 8.1g, the lowest salt intake of any developed country, a reduction estimated to prevent 8,500 fatal strokes and heart attacks a year. That puts salt reduction up there with hand-washing and vaccination in the public health hall of fame. And though it costs little more than loose change in NHS terms, it can end up saving vast sums of money.

This approach has been copied around the globe, with some countries even introducing legal limits on salt. But here, progress has stalled as monitoring has become weaker, despite the fact that reducing salt intakes to 6g a day could save 20,000 more lives a year.

“What about our free will?” the anti-nanny-staters will cry at the idea of forcing manufacturers to act. But we don’t see people with placards in the street protesting against the thwarting of our right to eat a slice of bread with as much salt as a packet of crisps. The beauty of food reformulation is that because it happens gradually, our palates adjust and we simply don’t notice that certain foods are 30% less salty than a decade ago.

The free-will question needs turning on its head. The dirty secret at the heart of the food industry is that the deliciously unhealthy stuff – fat, sugar, salt – is also cheap. Cram foods full of them and it’s not only consumers who love them, but shareholders. And this, together with changing eating habits, including the popularity of ready meals and eating out, has driven up the unhealthiness of our food over time. As the food that lines supermarket shelves gets fattier, saltier and more sugary, our palates are reconditioned to crave more of it. There’s no free choice about the industry reshaping our tastes to benefit its profit margins without us even realising.

That’s why it’s not just the usual suspects who are arguing for a compulsory approach, but some industry voices as well, including the British Retail Consortium. They know that unless all food manufacturers are forced to play by the rules, progress will be limited as even responsible manufacturers are held back by first-mover disadvantage.

That won’t stop the libertarians crying foul. Perhaps what motivates some of them is a belief that this is all about individual willpower, a disdain for people just too greedy to leave some of their dinner on their plate. But it’s not Christmas levels of gluttony primarily driving our obesity crisis. An irresponsible food industry has got a lot of lives to answer for.

Sonia Sodha is an Observer columnist