Obesity: No silver bullet, but the food and drink industry is part of the solution

05 April 2023

What we should and shouldn’t eat is much debated. Food and drink brings us joy, keeps us going through the day, and forges memories. But the scientific evidence is clear - what and how much we eat impacts our risk of developing a wide variety of diseases.


Obesity currently affects over a quarter of adults and the associated health risks of type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease and cancer are causing huge pressures on the NHS. Successive governments have tried to solve the problem through restricting where supermarkets can place certain products, taxing others, and considering what its ok to advertise during Saturday Night Takeaway. Whilst as an industry we are sceptical these will make a difference, there is a serious question to be answered: What role should the food industry play in improving diets?

Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. And filling kitchen cupboards up and down the country rightly comes with responsibilities. Adding more vegetables to a pasta sauce, reducing sugar in a breakfast cereal or enabling shoppers to choose a smaller portion of cake are important ways for a food company to play its part. We have long been committed to making these sorts of changes, recognising the important role we can play in helping everyone to follow a balanced diet.

New data from Kantar Worldpanel published by the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) shows we are making significant progress. Our companies’ products contribute 13% fewer calories, 15% fewer sugars and 24% less salt to the average shopping basket than they did eight years ago.

This is an achievement that shouldn’t be underestimated. Reformulation and new product development isn’t easy – it takes time and ingenuity. Both technical expertise and investment are needed to get the recipe right, so the great tastes we all love aren’t compromised. This is a huge challenge, particularly for smaller companies. In Scotland, the FDF is already supporting smaller businesses through the Reformulation for Health programme, which is supported by the Scottish Government. The UK Government and other nations should take note of this best practice approach to supporting healthier diets and small businesses.

We strongly believe changing recipes, and therefore diets, is not just about cutting down. And the scientific evidence agrees, with increasing whole grains, fruit, nuts and seeds, and fibre coming out as key focuses to reduce our risk factors for disease. It’s crucial we continue to improve the overall nutritional profile of food and provide a variety of healthier choices for everyone.

Companies can make changes that will impact the whole population with the food they sell, but what else can we do? With health inequalities stark and children in our most deprived communities more than twice as likely to be overweight or obese, there is a clear need for targeted interventions to improve health and decrease social inequalities in these areas.

Joined up action by industry, government – both local and national – and wider society is needed. With food and drink manufacturing sites across every region and nation of the UK, and nearly half a million employees in our workforce, our companies are well placed to work with councils and public health organisations to ensure action is locally relevant and effective.

We are proud of the commitment and progress our most loved brands have made to support people make healthier choices. Our industry is innovative and bold, and can achieve a lot, but we cannot do it alone. Through collaboration and partnership, we can help the nation have the healthy, balanced lifestyle that is needed.

Kate Halliwell is the chief scientific officer at the Food and Drink Federation

This article first appeared in the Grocer.