Skip to main content

Child Obesity

Volume 835: debated on Thursday 1 February 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they have plans to require reformulation of children’s food and drink to reduce child obesity.

My Lords, the soft drinks industry levy and location promotions legislation, together with the voluntary reformulation programme, have resulted in businesses lowering the levels of sugar and calories in a wide range of products. Pending regulations on volume price promotions and advertising should encourage further reformulation of less healthy products consumed by children and their families.

My Lords, as the Minister is aware, I have been pressing the Government to reformulate, removing sugar and using healthy alternatives. The Government are unwilling to do that, yet they are now prepared to spend £40 million on an experiment with the anti-obesity drug Wegovy. Why can they spend that money in that area but not spend it on exploring the possibilities of using alternatives to sugar? Will children be part of the anti-obesity experiment that is taking place? If it is successful and developed further, will they give children anti-obesity drugs?

I am grateful to the noble Lord for the question. I pay tribute to the work he does in this field and to his lifelong service in the trade union movement and the Community Service Volunteers. The Government are tackling child obesity seriously and will continue to work closely with industry to make it easier for people to make healthier choices. It remains up to businesses to decide whether and how they wish to use sweeteners, including stevia, in food and drink, and which ones to use. Indeed, we know that some businesses are already using stevia and the like in the products they make. However, sweeteners are not permitted in all foods and some consumers do not want sweeteners in the products they buy. Businesses can reduce, and have reduced, the levels of sugar in food without the use of sweeteners. On the specific question about using children, I cannot give him the exact answer from this Dispatch Box, so I will write to him.

My Lords, will the Minister kindly explain why the Government do not adopt the technique of the Canadian Government? The children of Canada have been fed on whole milk for many years, thousands and thousands of them. They are much healthier and they are not obese. Furthermore, will the Government encourage the 40 million obese people in this country to eat the right kind of fat, because that tends to limit obesity?

The noble Lord is a doughty campaigner on this subject, both in this House and within the department. The Government recognise that milk and dairy products make a valuable contribution to a healthy, balanced diet as a source of calcium, protein and vitamins and minerals. However, they are also a source of saturated fat, so government advice is to choose lower-fat milks and dairy products where possible. Full-fat milk and dairy products are recommended up to the age of two years, after which lower-fat versions, such as semi-skimmed milk, can be introduced, provided that the child is consuming a varied diet and is growing appropriately for their age.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a governor of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel. Is the Minister aware of the sugar-reduced food solutions being produced and marketed by the Weizmann Institute? If not, will he research them and put a letter in the Library advising noble Lords of the advances being made? Is similar research into solutions to reduce sugar in food and drink being undertaken in UK academies?

I presume the noble Lord is referring to a product called Incredo Sugar, which provides the taste of sugar while reducing the amount consumed by between 30% and 50%. I understand that during the processing, a molecule is added to natural cane and beet sugar that moves more sugar into a person’s saliva, causing a heightened taste of sugar. To date, the product works best in solid foods, such as chocolate and baked goods. We are not aware of any similar research being undertaken within UK academia or industry.

My Lords, the risk of obesity is greater in those who suffer food insecurity, costing the National Health Service £6 billion annually, a figure that is likely to rise. It is reliably estimated, meanwhile, that £1.70 is returned for every £1 invested in free school meals over a 10-year period. Does the Minister agree that free school meals for all primary and secondary schoolchildren would be a sound investment?

I am not sure I can make that commitment to the noble Baroness. The school food standards ensure that children have healthy food and drink options across the school day and restrict foods high in fat, sugar and salt, including high-sugar foods and confectionery. The Department for Education continues to keep the SFS under review. It is right and proper that families that cannot afford school meals should be helped by the taxpayer, but we cannot commit to providing for all schoolchildren.

My Lords, the data is devastating: 11 year-olds in the poorest areas of our country are twice as likely to become obese as those in the wealthiest, and that gap is growing. I ask the Minister to take a brief holiday from painting a rosy picture of the Government’s plans—I know it is his job to do that—and acknowledge just how badly we are failing children in poor areas, who are acquiring conditions that will leave them less healthy than their wealthier neighbours for the rest of their lives. This requires big, bold steps and urgency, something that the Government can show in other areas of policy but not here, where it really matters.

I am not aware that I am painting a rosy picture. There are serious issues with childhood obesity in this country, as there are in other countries around the world. Nearly one in 10 children, 9.2%, start primary school living with obesity, and approximately one in five children, 22%, leave primary school living with obesity. Children living in the most deprived areas are more than twice as likely to be living with obesity as those living in the least deprived areas. Obesity costs the country an estimated £58 billion. The Government are doing all we can to help reduce that from an early age.

My Lords, given the Minister’s response just now, does he acknowledge that the Government’s childhood obesity plan has presented us with what NHS England now describes as “a ticking health timebomb”? What assessment have the Government made of the impact of their own flagship sugar reduction programme managing only a 3.5% reduction and failing to meet its 20% target?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness, who raises a very important subject. It is not unique to the United Kingdom: many countries in the western world have this issue with childhood obesity. Sugar intakes in children aged one to 18 in the UK are double the recommended maximum level and more than 5% of daily energy intake. Consuming too much sugar can lead to weight gain, which in turn increases the risk of serious diseases, such as cancer, heart disease, type 2 diabetes and Covid-19. It also increases the risk of tooth decay. Modelling shows that children who are overweight or living with obesity consume between 140 and 500 excess calories a day, depending on the age and gender. The Government are working hard and doing a huge amount to reduce childhood obesity, but there is clearly a lot more to be done.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to challenge the industry about the types of substitutes it uses for sugar? When the big ones, such as aspartame, go into products such as Diet Coke, they create the illusion in your brain that you have had something sweet whereas your stomach is telling you that you have had nothing. They have now, on many scientific levels, been seen to make no difference to obesity. The same is true of low-fat yoghurts—in fact, they can contribute to obesity—so how are the Government tackling the industry to understand whether these low-fat products are actually helping with diets? I believe that they are not.

I completely agree with the noble Baroness that aspartame is an issue in diet foods, such as yoghurts and drinks. We work closely with the industry to look at formulations that can help reduce sugar, and a lot of progress has been made. I remember that, as a child, when asked what I would like by my grandmother, I used to say fizzy drinks and she would provide me with something called corporation pop, otherwise known as tap water.

My Lords, as my noble friend the Minister will know, obesity rates are highest in deprived areas, followed by higher incidence of mortality and morbidity related to type 2 diabetes, heart disease and strokes. There is also a higher prevalence of food banks in these areas. Can my noble friend say whether there is any correlation between the incidence of deprivation, poverty and food banks? My noble friend Lady Boycott made a very interesting suggestion on the previous Question. How are the Government addressing these issues?

This is a complicated picture, as many factors contribute to obesity. We know that there are more fast food outlets in deprived areas, offering very large portions of calorie-dense, nutrient-poor food. Buying this type of food can be seen as value for money for people who are struggling financially. We also know that people living in an area of high deprivation are subject to more advertising, thus encouraging the purchase of foods higher in fat, salt and sugar. Food banks offer emergency food provision and people may be accessing these as a short-term measure, so they may not represent the food that is routinely consumed over a long period. The Government are working hard with industry. The reduction of sugar is going on in the reformulation of many products that we all consume, but there is clearly a lot more to be done.