Health is good business

“Far from being bad for business, the opportunities to be gained from supporting consumers to meet their aspirations are considerable” - Dr Susan Jebb CBE.

Dr Susan Jebb OBE is Head of Nutrition and Health Research at the MRC Human Nutrition Research. This article was written with her colleague Claire MacEvilly. For more information visit www.mrc-hnr.cam.ac.uk.


Dr Susan JebbFood and drink in Britain today is more varied and readily available than ever before. In theory, it is easier to choose a healthier diet, yet diet-related diseases continue to impose a heavy toll – on individuals and their families, on business (through lost productivity) and the state, especially the health care system.

In Britain diet-related disease is dominated by the consequences of over-consumption – too many calories, too much fat, sugar and salt. Yet in sub-groups of the population classical nutrition deficiencies diseases persist, together with more subtle effects of sub-optimal intake.

The scale of diet-related ill-health is too great, the problem too complex, to leave the responsibility entirely for consumers to always make the healthy choice and thus to drive change across the food industry.

The industry itself must take responsibility too and lead the change towards a healthier diet.

The UK is a world leader in nutrition research aimed at improving health and reducing the burden of diet-related illness.

The need for basic, strategic and applied nutrition research has never been stronger. MRC Human Nutrition Research exists to develop the evidence underpinning public health nutrition strategies, working in collaboration with national and international partners on matters of mutual interest and with shared benefits.

Our research focus reflects the major public health nutrition priorities, working across the life-course and with an emphasis on vulnerable groups. Our collaboration with others, including policymakers, industry, health professionals and the third sector ensures that the emerging science can be rapidly translated into policy and practice.

In recent years these strengths in nutrition science, combined with the greater prominence given to food issues in Government, have encouraged the UK food industry to take a leading role globally in product reformulation and innovation.

Real progress has been made on reducing trans fatty acids and salt, with work to reduce saturated fat following on. Through this endeavour, together with major improvements in the clarity and prominence of nutritional information through front-of-pack labelling, consumers are able to make an informed choice.

But it is increasingly evident that a broader approach is needed to transform the eating habits of the nation. The focus needs to move beyond the composition of individual products to encompass the wider food environment, including the marketing and promotion of foods, and to address the social and cultural norms which underpin consumer behaviour. This is not solely the responsibility of the food industry – but the industry is an essential partner.

Convenience foods, which fit with busy lives, need to be transformed to deliver on health goals too. There needs to be a new focus on calories, through appropriate portion sizes. Promotions need to be shifted to help people segue into healthier options, not reinforce purchases of less healthier foods. Nutrition messaging needs to be aligned to give clear consistent information, supported by robust, evidence-based health claims.

The food industry thrives on a rich knowledge of its consumers and surveys show that the public aspire to a healthier diet but find it difficult to achieve. Far from being 'bad for business', the opportunities to be gained from supporting consumers to meet their aspirations are considerable. Health is good for business.

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Last reviewed: 06 Jul 2009