What did the experts have to say in the Great Health Debate?

There are several shocking statistics out there about the state of the nation’s health, notably Public Health England’s prediction that by 2034, 70% of adults will be obese. The question of who has ultimate responsibility for changing this is hotly debated. Should the food and drink industry do more? Is it something for the government to tackle, or should consumers make more effort to prioritise their health? These are just some of the questions a panel of experts deliberated over in The Great Health Debate at Food & Drink Expo on Monday, chaired by Karen Fewell of The Food Marketing School.

The panel of experts in session were:
• Tim Rycroft, Corporate Affairs Director, Food & Drink Federation
• Anna Jones, Chef, Author and Food Stylist
• Sarah Whiddett, Head of Insight & Customer Experience, Bidvest Foodservice
• Eleanor Freeman, Head of Products, graze.com
• Amanda Ursell, Nutritionist



Tim Rycroft   Anna Jones   Sarah Whiddett   Eleanor Freeman   Amanda Ursell  











The responsibility for change

Diving straight into the tough questions, host Karen Fewell asked the panel who they felt had the biggest part to play in changing the nation’s diet and eating habits. Nutritionist Amanda Ursell was keen to defend some of the food industry’s efforts in this area, she commented: “Individuals do have an important role to play in this, but so do other parties. In particular, food brands are stepping up to the plate with initiatives like reformulation of their products.”

Tim Rycroft of the Food & Drink Federation backed this up with the statement that 60% of soft drink sales are low and no sugar. He also added: “Government can be very powerful. They definitely have a role in encouraging people to do the right thing.”

Eleanor Freeman of graze.com explained how the approach at Graze was to look at what the barriers were to eating healthily and that simple steps such as portion size and innovating with ingredients could see consumers adopting healthier habits.

Anna Jones, who’d previously been actively involved in Jamie Oliver’s mission to shape up America’s fattest towns, agreed with this stepping stone approach. She felt that simplicity and familiarity were key and commented: “As a chef you often want your most adventurous recipes to be the most popular, but it is the recipes for familiar foods that people choose. Dishes like a spaghetti bolognaise but with a lentil base to make it healthier.”

Sarah Whiddett of Bidvest Foodservice also felt that down to earth recipes with ingredients available in supermarkets were the way forward. She added that whilst there was a trend towards their customers ordering healthier foods, this was different around the country.



The role of the retail and hospitality industries

Reformulation of products is not a magic wand warned Tim Rycroft, he spoke about how this process came with many costs and challenges and involved rigorous testing. He also explained that consumer relationships with brands are built around trust and people don’t always want brands to change, presenting some difficulties when it comes to reformulation.

Looking to the foodservice and hospitality industry Amanda Ursell called for simpler solutions like reducing portion size as a quick way to reduce calories, salt and sugar and achieve nutritional goals.



Food labelling

Labelling was another hot topic. Amanda Ursell felt that the traffic light system was sensible, but that serving sizes could sometimes be confusing for consumers and there needed to be more consistency here. Activity equivalent labelling for food products was also discussed by the panel, Tim Rycroft felt this was an interesting area but stated that it needed more research. He added: “A huge amount of research has already gone into food labelling. Before any further changes are made we need to research whether these would actually alter consumer behaviour.”



Children and the sugar tax

It was widely agreed that children did need protection when it came to the way food and drink is marketed, whether this is sweets displayed at the checkout, tie ups with celebrities and sports stars or online advertising. Tim Rycroft felt that television advertising guidelines were already very strict but that these needed to be applied online. He commented: “Children today are now watching more on tablets and online than they are traditional television programmes, so there’s a need for the regulations that apply to TV to be extended online.”

The sugar tax and its implications divided our panel. Anna Jones, who had previously worked for Jamie Oliver felt it was a positive move and that there was no argument against it. Whilst Bidvest’s Sarah Whiddett felt that waiting for government interventions was slowing down the progress food brands were trying to make. She added that government efforts may have been better spent highlighting hidden sugars to consumers in products like ready meals.

Amanda Ursell had changed her opinion on the tax, from thinking it was a positive step to wanting to see more evidence that it would actually cut obesity. Tim Rycroft had the strongest point of view and vowed to fight the sugar levy, saying it wasn’t right to demonise one ingredient like sugar. He was against the idea that any one food could be so harmful it needed taxing.



Looking to the future

Host Karen Fewell asked panellists for their advice for the future and preventing the obesity crisis predicted by 2034.

Sarah Whiddett and Eleanor Freeman called for a longer term and more holistic view with everyone acknowledging their responsibilities. Amanda Ursell said that education was key, she pointed out the Association for Nutrition’s guidance for those working in foodservice and gyms. She commented: “People working in gyms, for example, can be very influential, if we can get everyone singing from the same hymn sheet when it comes to nutrition that would be a good start. There's a lot of noise but government, nutritionists and experts have been saying the same for the last 40 years.”

As a chef Anna Jones felt cooking was the key, especially the midweek meals. While Tim Rycroft was keen to look to the future for food brands. He pointed out how the Scottish government gives grants to companies looking to reformulate and ended the session with the question ‘what if we had this in England too?’