Health Improvement and Food Production - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 7 July 2022.

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Photo of Lord Kamall Lord Kamall The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 5:12, 7 July 2022

My Lords, I also congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, on securing this debate. I am also grateful to all noble Lords for their considered and thoughtful contributions. It is a self-evident truth that we all need food to survive. However, as with many things in life, it is not enough simply to restate this. As noble Lords have rightly said, there are many factors to be considered. How is the food produced? Is it done sustainably? How affordable is it, and what is its impact on our health?

We know that access to good-quality, healthy food is essential to achieving our ambition to halve childhood obesity by 2030, to reduce the gap in healthy life expectancy and to reduce the number of people living with diet and weight-related illnesses. The Government are committed to supporting the production and availability of good food to help improve the nation’s health.

As noble Lords have referred to, our recently published food strategy puts food security at the heart of our vision for the food sector. Our aim is to maintain broadly the current level of food that we produce domestically and to boost production in sectors where there are the largest opportunities. It sets out our ambitions to create a sustainable and accessible food system, with quality products that support healthier and homegrown diets for all. Our farming reforms are designed to support farmers to produce food sustainably and productively and in a more environmentally friendly way, from which we will all benefit. I am sure we all want to see a sustainable and healthy food system, from farm to fork and catch to plate, seizing the opportunities before us and levelling up every part of the country so that everyone, wherever they live and whatever their background, has access to nutritious and healthier food.

We all know that the food we consume plays a role in our overall health. Covid-19 highlights the risks of poor diet and obesity, driving home the importance of better diets and maintaining a healthy weight. As noble Lords have referred to, the Eatwell Guide outlines the Government’s advice on a healthy, balanced diet. It shows the proportions in which different types of food are needed to have a well-balanced and healthy diet, to help meet nutrient requirements and reduce the risk of chronic disease. We know that too many of us are eating too many calories, too much salt and saturated fat and too many large portions, and are snacking too frequently.

While some parts of the food and drink industry are leading the way, by reformulating products or reducing portion sizes, and I think we should pay credit to those parts of the industry that have done so and sometimes met targets in advance of target dates, the challenge to go further remains.

We know that obesity does not develop overnight. When you look at the behavioural contributions, it builds over time through frequent excessive calorie consumption and insufficient physical activity. It is not the stereotype of Billy Bunter stuffing his face with 75 cream cakes. Even eating small amounts of excess calories over time can add up for both adults and children. It catches up with many people over time.

As noble Lords have rightly said, obesity is associated with reduced healthy life expectancy. It is a leading cause of serious non-communicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and it is often associated with poorer mental health. We also know now that it increases the risk of serious illness and death from Covid-19.

Helping people to achieve and maintain a healthy weight and a heathier diet is one of the most important things we can do to improve our nation’s health. We all have a role to play in meeting this challenge: government, industry, the health service and many other partners across the country. As a government, we can play our role in enabling healthier food choices by making a greater range of healthier food more accessible; by empowering people with more information to make informed decisions about the foods that they eat; and by incentivising healthier behaviours.

As noble Lords have acknowledged, the food industry supplies most of the food and drink that we consume. Therefore, it plays a critical role in supporting the aims that we want to see, such as selling healthier food and drink. Through our reduction and reformulation programmes, we are working with the food industry to encourage it to make everyday food and drink lower in sugar, salt and calories. The programme applies across all sectors of the food industry: retailers, manufacturers, restaurants, cafés, pubs, takeaways and delivered food. We have seen some progress since the publication of chapter one of the childhood obesity plan in 2016, with the average sugar content of breakfast cereals and yoghurts decreasing by 13%, and drinks subject to the soft drinks levy decreasing by 44% between 2015 and 2019. These statistics are very welcome, but we know there is more to be done.

However, we also need to be careful about the unintended consequences. As an example, when the sugar content of Irn-Bru was reduced, customers complained about the taste. How did the company respond? By claiming to rediscover an old recipe from 1901, which contained even more sugar. It was a huge hit with Irn-Bru drinkers. How do we address these unintended consequences?