Diabetes UK’s Bruce Warwick introduces the Food Upfront campaign, a dedicated effort to make detailed food labelling a reality for the British public.
The Diabetes UK Food Upfront campaign launched early last year. It’s been through a few different stages, but throughout we’ve been calling on the government and food industry to make clear, consistent nutritional or food labelling a reality, in order to help people make healthier decisions about the food they eat, both at home and out.
Following our campaigning, we were delighted to see the UK government commit, following public consultation, to introduce legislation that would mandate calorie labelling in the out of home sector (restaurants, cafes, takeaways) in the second chapter of its Childhood Obesity Plan. Though we’re yet to see any of the measures implemented, if they become reality they would be exciting early steps towards addressing the obesity epidemic.
We hope this is just the beginning and would like government and industry to go further.
We want to see the full range of nutritional information made available for food purchased while eating out and for food bought to eat at home. That’s why we’re calling on the biggest outlets in the out of home sector to adopt our Food Upfront Pledge. This would commit them to providing clear, consistent nutritional information on menus, at the point of purchase or somewhere in store and online. This means:
- Introducing calorie labelling on their menus or at the point of choice
- Ensuring information on carbohydrate content is clearly available either on menus or somewhere both in store and online
- Ensuring fat, saturated fat, sugar and salt content of meals is clearly available to customers, using the traffic light system, in store and online.
We know that full nutritional labelling won’t be easy for single-unit operators and smaller businesses. When new legislation on food labelling comes into force, the government has to help smaller businesses adopt nutritional labelling. This could mean providing the smallest businesses with a longer implementation period, as well as ensuring all businesses are provided with the tools they need to calculate nutritional information, like calorie and carbohydrate contents.
However, the biggest chains in the out of home sector have the capacity to lead the way and adopt our pledge with minimal disruption. That’s why we’re calling on the 24 largest outlets in the sector to adopt our pledge.1
Why are you calling for this now?
In our Future of Diabetes survey, thousands of people with diabetes told us that they wanted action to make clear, consistent food labelling a reality. Susanna’s story sums up why many people with diabetes are concerned about food labelling:
“I’ve had type 1 diabetes for 57 years… I’ve never complained about my diabetes and just get on with it, but the truth is it can be a crushing bore. I have to think about every single morsel I put into my mouth, test my blood sugar levels continually throughout the day and must inject insulin at least four times every day, sometimes more.
“For me, it’s about balancing the food I eat with the insulin that I must inject. I don’t find eating at home too complicated, as I know the carbohydrate value of most food in my house and if I don’t I can look it up.
“Eating out is the only time I really lose control. Of course, I love eating out, like everyone else, but because of my type 1 diabetes it can be a nightmare! I wouldn’t want small, independent restaurants to be required to display the carbohydrate content of every dish, but I wish the big chains would. It would make my life so much easier, and it would stop me from having to look up carb contents on my phone.”
We want to make nutritional labelling a reality in the out of home sector to help people like Susanna, who want to be able to enjoy a meal out with friends without having to constantly worry about what’s in the food they’re eating.
But as well as wanting to help people manage their diabetes well and avoid complications, whatever type of the condition they have, we also want to prevent as many people as possible from developing type 2 diabetes in the first place. With 12.3 million people at increased risk, it’s vital that action is taken to prevent as many of these people from developing type 2 diabetes as possible.
To do this, we need to address the obesity epidemic. Being overweight is by no means the only risk factor for type 2 diabetes, others include age and ethnicity, but it is the most significant modifiable one, and accounts for 80-85% of a person’s risk.
There’s no easy fix when it comes to addressing the obesity epidemic, but our obesogenic environment presents a range of opportunities for action. From banning the advertising of foods high in fat, sugar and salt on public transport in London, to the provision of free fruit for children in supermarkets, we’re beginning to see small changes that together will make a big difference. But we need to go further and nutritional labelling, along with further restrictions on junk food advertising, will be a key part of the fight against obesity.
People are becoming increasingly reliant on eating out. A recent survey commissioned by Diabetes UK showed that almost half of people eat dinner out once a week or more. People’s reliance on the out of home sector means it has a responsibility to help tackle obesity, and a good start would be to give customers the information they need to eat more healthily.
What is the current state of affairs?
We’ve surveyed the general public to get an idea of what they think about the food labelling situation in the out of home sector. Our findings have told us the British public are hungry for change. 79% of people told us they believe the industry has a responsibility to make their food and drink healthier, and 76% of people believe that restaurants and cafes should display calorie information on their menus.
In 2018, 29% of people told us they feel well informed about the nutritional contents of the food they eat out. When we asked the public the same question a year later, we found this number had dropped to 24%, less than one in four.
This surveying shows that people aren’t being given enough information about what’s in the food they’re eating, and that they believe the industry and the government have a responsibility to help them understand what’s in their food.
Few out of home outlets provide full nutritional information to customers in a clear and accessible way. While there are some who are leading the way, many companies are doing the bare minimum. Companies can give as much or as little information as they want, and only a few provide information on calories at the point of choice.
What do you want to happen?
We’d like the government to follow through on what they’ve committed to in the Childhood Obesity Plan. This means publishing the calorie labelling consultation outcome document and subsequently ensuring the safe passage of, at the very least, calorie labelling legislation through parliament with a view to it becoming law by 2020. The news that the Treasury are trying to block this legislation is concerning, and we hope this doesn’t hinder its progress into legislation.
We’d also like the 24 biggest outlets in the out of home sector to lead the fight against obesity by adopting our Food Upfront pledge. We’ve had responses from most of the 24 outlets we’ve approached, but there are a few who haven’t agreed to meet with us.2
While we do not expect all 24 companies to adopt our ambitious pledge, we hope that our action will inspire all the companies to work towards improving the accessibility of nutritional information for their food. Their customers have made their position clear; it’s time for the industry to act.
Through our supporters we’ve delivered thousands of messages to the 24 largest out of home outlets. They now have no excuses. They should listen to their customers and give them the information they want and need. We’ll be following up with the restaurants and seeing what action they’ll take. Our next steps will be dictated by their response.
We’ll also continue to put pressure on the government to ensure that the ambitious actions proposed become reality. We have a real opportunity to change our environment and make the healthy choice the easy choice. We want statutory action on calorie labelling as a first step, and then we’ll continue to encourage the government to go even further with their action on food labelling.
- You can find a full list of outlets here.
- You can see a full list of who’s responded and who hasn’t here.
Please note, this article will appear in issue 9 of Health Europa Quarterly, which will be available to read in April 2019.