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Ultra-processed Foods

Volume 804: debated on Thursday 2 July 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to reduce the amount of ultra-processed foods available for purchase in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, to address the consumption of food and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt, Public Health England oversees the sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme on behalf of the Government, as set out in the three chapters of the child obesity plan and the 2019 prevention Green Paper Advancing our Health: Prevention in the 2020s. In addition, the Government provide healthy eating advice through the Eatwell Guide, social marketing campaigns and food procurement and catering guidance.

I thank the Minister for his Answer, but I am disappointed that he did not use the term “ultra-processed foods” in it, which represent 57% of the calories in the British diet. In the past couple of years, we have seen three studies which I shall quote from briefly. The first is from the US, which said

“Ultra-processed foods cause excess calorie intake and weight gain.”

A French study states

“a 10% increase in intake results in a 14% increase in death,”

and a UK study says that

“a 10% increase in intake results in an 18% risk of increase in obesity in men.”

This is a relatively new area of science, but do the Government not understand that we have to acknowledge that these ultra-palatable foods that are designed not to satisfy have to be part of what the Prime Minister has said is going to be a new focus on tackling obesity?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has made her point well. When the pandemic began, the national food strategy team were investigating the health risks associated with a diet heavy in ultra-processed foods. The team is in the process of restarting its work and will return to the question of ultra-processed foods in its final report, which it currently plans to publish over the winter.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has demonstrated that there is a bigger killer on the block than Covid, and that is ultra-processed foods. Covid has increased the focus on the need to reduce obesity and diabetes and to promote healthy eating, but we have run out of road on the kind of voluntary approaches that the Minister has just described. Will the Government now regulate for the rapid reformulations of ultra-processed foods? The responsible supermarkets want a regulated level playing field so that they can get on with helping us all avoid what is now the biggest cause of premature deaths: the consumption of ultra-processed foods.

The noble Baroness is entirely right to say that Covid has focused our minds on obesity and the role of diet. However, voluntary approaches are necessary. We have to take people, industry and government with us. That is the core of our approach and it will remain our approach.

My Lords, will the Prime Minister’s proposed obesity strategy include the full range of obesity services up to tier 4 in all areas, plus ensuring prevention measures such as calorie labelling, portion size, reformulation and the restriction of price promotions of HFSS foods? Will there be independent evaluation of the measures to be proposed?

My Lords, it is not my role to pre-empt the Prime Minister’s strategy formulation, but the noble Baroness has articulated a very reasonable list of the potential measures. We are closely focused on this area. We are measuring ourselves keenly and our objectives are clearly laid out. The focus is on getting movement on this important area.

My Lords, I hope that my noble friend the Minister is as saddened as I am that, in this country, we eat more ultra-processed foods than any other country in Europe. That is a shameful position to be in and clearly the government policy is not working. Would he consider discussing with his noble friend in the Treasury the introduction of VAT on ultra-processed foods?

My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend that Britain’s record on obesity and the diet that we as a country eat is not one that we can celebrate or be proud of. The sugar tax has proved a successful measure. It shows the Government’s determination to make progress in this area and, if necessary, to use fiscal means to do so.

My Lords, there is no doubt that HFSS foods are unhealthy, particularly for young children, who are showing such alarming rates of obesity. We also know that advertising works. However, recent research by Cancer Research UK shows that over half of all food adverts on TV during children’s peak viewing hours, 6 to 9, are for processed foods that are high in sugar and fat, while fewer than one in 15 are for fruit and vegetables. The consultation on whether the Government would introduce a nine o’clock watershed for such adverts was completed and delivered in June 2019. Can the Minister update the House on the progress of that consultation and tell us when we are likely to have the Government’s response?

The noble Baroness is right to say that the consultation is an important one and we take it very seriously. Covid has been disruptive, but I reassure her that we will respond to the consultation on extending advertising restrictions as soon as we can.

My Lords, I will focus on food labelling. Does the Minister share my concern that it can be difficult to recognise ultra-processed foods in the supermarket? Even a sugary multicoloured breakfast cereal can state that it is a good source of fibre and is made with wholegrains. What consideration have the Government made of improving the food labelling process by adding the NOVA system of food classification, which divides the foods we buy into four groups ranging from unprocessed to ultra-processed? Would this not help to foster consumers’ awareness of how much processed food they and their families eat?

My Lords, I agree completely with the noble Baroness that labelling is absolutely critical in this area. We have made huge progress already and it is eye-opening to study the labels on some foods. I agree with her that while some supermarket products can look healthy, they are often anything but. We continue to expand and improve our labelling arrangements and we are looking at the responses to the consultation and considering them carefully.

My Lords, we have seen research showing a direct link between the rise in the incidence of diabetes and the consumption of highly processed foods. In the past, when such evidence on health of certain products has been produced, the Government took action to ban television advertising of them. Cigarette smoking is a prime example. Following on from the Minister’s response to the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, can he say whether the Government will consider banning all television advertising that features ultra-processed foods?

My Lords, the noble Baroness has made the point on smoking well. However, we have an issue in that there is no generally recognised agreement on the definition of ultra-processed foods. We are also conscious of the fact that we have to take the British public with us and that regulation and advertising bans on their own do not have the impact that we need to make. None the less, as the sugar tax has demonstrated, we are prepared to use regulatory and fiscal means if progress cannot be made, and we will maintain a review of this area.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that the key players in the food system are the large producers, the large supermarkets and the big caterers? Between them they set the prices and standards for small producers and farmers as well as spending huge amounts of money on advertising ultra-processed foods, as the noble Baronesses, Lady Boycott and Lady Bakewell, have just said—20 or 30 times as much as they spend on advertising fresh fruit and veg. Given that the Minister is reluctant to go for an advertising ban, how do the Government propose to get these large companies to help to deliver a more balanced, affordable and nutritious diet rather than to facilitate the reverse, as they do now?

My Lords, I take some issue with the noble Lord’s demonisation of big companies and his characterisation that our food industry is dominated by a small number of them. Actually, the food industry in the UK is extremely diffuse and, when we consider regulation and advertising, we have to bear in mind that it is often the small producers, the small farmers and the small businesses which are affected by those measures. They have an effect on business, an effect on jobs and an effect on tax, so this is not a simple matter. That does not mean that we are not serious about the subject, but we have to bear in mind the effects on the entire supply chain, which includes many important British companies.