obese child with doughnut

A spoonful of sugar might help the medicine go down, but it’s certainly not keeping the doctor away.

Sugar is currently public enemy number one for the Department of Health, which set out to create a strategy to address the disturbing statistic that nearly a third of children aged two to 15 in this country are overweight or obese. The health ramifications and burden on the NHS are well documented, and tackling the so-called ‘obesity timebomb’ from a young age is seen as a major issue of our time.

It’s perhaps for that reason that there was widespread disappointment when the long-awaited strategy was finally published last week. Heavy on ideas but light on legislation, the report outlines a raft of proposals for how to help direct children onto a healthier path. But beyond the already-announced introduction of a sugar tax on fizzy drinks, the strategy stopped short of obligating industry to follow any fixed measures, instead encouraging manufacturers to follow a series of voluntary reductions focused mainly on calories. The argument that Prime Minister Theresa May did not want to burden the food and drink industry with further legislation at a time of economic instability has not washed with many.

Certainly Jamie Oliver didn’t mince his words, deriding the strategy as “far from robust” and lamenting the lack of action on advertising junk food to kids and restrictions on promotions. “With this disappointing, and frankly, underwhelming strategy, the health of our future generations remains at stake,” he wrote on Facebook. “I sincerely hope the government’s promise to ‘take further action where it is needed’ is true.”

If that reaction from Britain’s most passionate healthy eating campaigner was expected, there was disappointment in more surprising quarters too. Sainsbury’s chief executive Mike Coupe said a more holistic approach was needed, including compulsory targets across all nutrients and mandatory traffic light labelling, while the British Retail Consortium said voluntary targets simply created an uneven playing field and called for tougher measures.

There is only the most cursory mention of fresh produce in the 13-page action plan – indeed the words ‘fruit’ and ‘vegetable’ appear only twice each, drawing criticism that the strategy is too focused on the negative and not enough on accentuating the positives of healthy eating.

Adrian Barlow, chairman of English Apples & Pears, underlines this point and adds that it is “ridiculous that we don’t adopt a stronger approach” to obesity in the same way that has proven so successful with cigarettes. He also makes the comparison with the failures of the referendum’s Remain campaign, which focused on scare stories rather than spelling out the upsides of EU membership. “Exercise is of course very important, but the most important aspect is diet and eating the right sorts of food,” he says. “There’s a vast amount of confectionery sold near to tills and those foods must be contributing to the obesity problem, so government must implement much tougher regulation.”

The NFU focused on the issue of positioning in its recent Fit for the Future report, and the union’s horticulture adviser Lee Abbey describes the strategy as “a missed opportunity” when it comes to fruit and vegetables. “The government tends to focus on what we shouldn’t eat and not what we should,” he says. “It’s about enabling industry to make things happen. We would have liked to see more focus on fruit and veg within that.”

For its part the government insists the strategy will achieve the desired effect. “The actions in this plan will significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years,” the report states. “Achieving this will mean fewer obese children in 2026 than if obesity rates stay as they are. We are confident our approach will reduce childhood obesity while respecting consumer choice, economic realities and, ultimately, our need to eat.”

The government has stressed the report “represents the start of a conversation, rather than the final word”, and it is this fact that critics will cling to as they watch closely to see whether this much-vaunted plan can deliver some tangible results.

Key points from the Childhood Obesity Strategy

Soft drinks levy: The headline measure in the plan, the levy is aimed at encouraging producers to reduce the amount of sugar in their products. Cash raised will be invested in programmes to reduce obesity and encourage physical activity and balanced diets for school age children.

Sugar reduction: All sectors of the food and drink industry will be challenged to reduce overall sugar contents by at least 20 per cent by 2020, with at least a five per cent reduction in year one.

Supporting innovation: The government wants to encourage the next generation of innovation in science and technology to allow industry to create healthier, more sustainable products.

Updating the nutrient profile model: The current nutrient profile is a decade old and the government wants to update it to reflect current scientific advice. An updated profile will focus on the most unhealthy products rather than adversely affecting products consumed as part of a healthy diet.

Healthy options in the public sector: A welcome pledge, the government is leaning on public sector locales, from leisure centres to hospitals, to “have a food environment designed so the easy choices are also the healthy ones”. It will also ensure full uptake of the Government Buying Standards for Food and Catering Services in central government.

Support for low income groups: The government is re-committing to the Healthy Start scheme, which provided £60 million of vouchers to families on low incomes in England in 2015-16.

Exercise: Closer scrutiny will be put on the amount of exercise kids get at school, with physical activity now being made a key part of the new healthy schools rating scheme. Advice will be available to schools to help them promote healthier lifestyles.

School meals: The Department for Education, backed by Public Health England, will update the School Food Standards to make school meals healthier. Some £10m of the soft drinks levy will also go to fund the expansion of healthy breakfast clubs.

Food labelling: The government says the UK’s exit from the EU will make it easier to stipulate what nutritional information should be presented on packs, and how. This could include visual cues such as teaspoons of sugar.