Complexities in improving health through what we eat

15th January 2015

Whilst there is no doubt that reducing excessive levels of salt, fat and sugar in the diet will have benefits on the nation’s overall health, how we achieve this needs to be based on the best available scientific evidence. We believe that this is best achieved through a balanced diet and taking sufficient exercise. Government can play a role in empowering people to make better decisions to achieve this, through education, work in schools, as well as on pack labelling.

Reformulation of products could also help, but this needs to be done with a rational, evidence-based approach. The food industry has already been actively reformulating products to improve their health. Trans-fats have been vastly reduced in processed foods, in response to overwhelming evidence of their harmful health effects. Our own studies have shown how levels have indeed dropped in the latest food composition data

But further reformulation may be harder to achieve. Sugar, fat and salt all play a variety of different roles in our foods. Whilst it may be possible to target a minority of foods where there are clear opportunities to cut out excess, such as sugar sweetened drinks, sugars may be intrinsic to some foods. Fats are used to give food its structure. Salt plays an important role in preventing food poisoning bacteria from growing. Targeting one food ingredient may be over simplistic, as highlighted by the problem posed by low fat foods where the fat has been replaced by sugar.

The food industry has put in a lot of effort to reformulate foods to make them healthier, but working with these constraints. More can still be done and scientific research, including our own can provide innovative solutions. We at how to develop fats that contain reduced calories, but otherwise match their structural and sensory properties. We are looking at ingredients that can make you feel fuller, for longer. Our food safety centre, and resources such as ComBase, can help minimise microbial safety risks from reducing salt and sugar.

Providing healthier foods doesn’t necessarily lead to healthier diets. Consumer choice over portion size, and how often we eat could undermine the best efforts through reformulation. There is a risk that unworkable limits would provide healthier foods that consumers simply reject because their quality is not maintainable, or their shelf life means they go to waste too soon. So we need to maintain projects like the National Diet Survey, to monitor those changes in foods have the desired effect in improving the overall diet.

Obesity, and related health conditions, is complex, and consumer behaviour is more complex still. So it will need a government, food producers, scientists, retailers educators and consumers themselves to take responsibility together and tackle the problem.

Related Targets

Targeting Future Foods

Future Foods

Targeting food composition

Food Composition

Related Research Areas