Why the Government’s food strategy is set up to fail

Why the Government’s food strategy is set up to fail

The environment in which we shop and eat in has a huge impact on our ‘choices’

June 13, 2022 5:12 pm(Updated 5:14 pm)

Struggling with your weight? Struggling with debt? Struggling to quit smoking? Why don’t you just get a grip and get it done?

In recent weeks there has been a series of policy announcements – and some reversals – that hinged on the question of who, or what, is responsible for our behavior. The new food strategy for England is the latest, backing off “sin taxes” or subsidies and instead emphasizing “personal responsibility and choice”.

If you think the reason people are struggling with their weight is all a matter of self-control, then the go-to measures are the familiar list: information (eg labels), training (eg cooking), exercise (eg get off the sofa ). Of course these have a role to play. But as government advisor Henry Dimbleby pointed out in his careful National Food Strategy report – which my organisation, the Behavioral Insights Team, helped with – context, or “obesogenic environment”, is also driving our waistlines up. This is why we have to focus on nudging the junk-food cycle, rather than those caught in it.

Of course we all have personal choice, we all get to decide what we put in our mouths. But the problem with only focusing on personal responsibility is that choice is strongly affected by the choice environment, and often in ways beyond our awareness.

This is a deep political and policy wrangle, and one we keep returning to. This week healthy food is the topic of the moment. Last week it was green choices. Soon it will be smoking as the Government reflects on Dr Javed Khan’s excellent review.

Our supermarkets and high streets are full of high-sugar, high-fat foods. The junk-food cycle results from markets responding to our choices-in-a-hurry. What we eat, and how much, is strongly influenced by how big the packages are, where they are positioned, and even the size of the portions or plates used. We live in a world where “healthy choices” are increasingly hard to make, and unhealthy ones are easy. Can you remember what a “medium” size used to be? (Spoiler alert: it used to be smaller…)

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Producers are caught in the same cycle. It is very hard for healthier products and producers to stand out in a world of confusology – from packages covered in claims of being green, and images of healthiness, to the position and placing of products in stores and menus. A typical selection of cereal bars in your local store will differ in sugar content by 500 per cent, fat by 1000 per cent, and salt by 4000 per cent. If you want to take out your calculator, that information is on the pack. Busy shoppers still struggle to match their good intentions.

Smart regulation can reverse the junk food cycle. Singapore, for example, has seen significant falls in obesity as a result of its tough regulations on advertising, its brutally clear A to E “nutriscore” display and labeling rules (just one score, not five or more), and the reformulation of food this has driven. Similarly, sugar in British drinks has halved as a result of reformulation driven by the sugar levy.

Humans haven’t changed, but the world around us has. As Dimbleby has argued, that’s why we need to apply nudges to producers, including financial incentives. We need retailers, chefs, farmers, and food manufactures to use all their ingenuity – from marketing to reformulation – to make healthy choices easy.

Professor David Halpern is the Chief Executive of the Behavioral Insights Team, originally set up by the Cabinet Office in 2010 to apply behavioral insights to policy and public services

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