Sick of excess salt and sugar? Why public health should be at the heart of improving our food

Children in a supermarket. Copyright: Impact on Urban Health

In this week’s Recipe for Change guest blog, Prof. Matt Ashton, from The Association of Directors of Public Health, shares why national food and drinks levies can go hand in hand with local public health interventions. Together, these approaches can help to address the flood of salt and sugar in our food which is making many of us sicker.

Over the past 50 years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of people experiencing largely preventable illnesses such as cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and various cancers.

While the NHS is responsible for treating these illnesses, we in public health are responsible for promoting good health and preventing and protecting against illness, so fewer people need treatment in the first place. To do this, we help fund a whole host of community-led initiatives that empower local residents to take an active role in creating healthier environments by, for example, improving access to green spaces or reducing food waste.

We also know that excess salt and sugar consumption are a leading cause of many of these conditions. As much as 85% of the salt we eat is already in our food when we buy it, and just three types of food – biscuits, confectionery and desserts – are responsible for 60% of the added sugar we eat at home. While our bodies need a little bit of salt to survive, and can process small amounts of free sugar, we are clearly consuming far too much.

Retailers and manufacturers use a myriad of methods to ensure their products are always at the forefront of our minds, including advertising, price discounting, multi-buy promotions and by influencing where products are placed in store and online. As a result, the places where we live, work and relax are flooded with food overloaded with sugar and salt.

Nutritious food is also almost three times more expensive than unhealthy options. This means people with less money are more likely to purchase unhealthy food – not by choice, but out of necessity. In the current financial climate especially, the consequences will be that rates of preventable illness continue to rise. Without action, food preferences will be shaped at such a young age that they cause ongoing ill-health – and therefore demand on health and social care – for generations to come, widening the already unacceptable  20-year gap in healthy life expectancy between the richest and poorest members of society.

To bring about real change, we need to create an environment that promotes good health and healthy eating. Achieving this will require bold thinking from national and local governments, and collaborative working across all sectors – including the food and drink industry.

On a local level, Directors of Public Health (DsPH) work with a wide range of partners to help create healthier environments. For example, we work with planning departments to limit the number of new unhealthy food outlets, particularly those in close proximity to schools. We also work with schools and early years providers, public sector partners, voluntary and community organisations and businesses to encourage the provision of healthy food. Following the success of Transport for London’s healthy advertising policy, which led to a 20% reduction in purchases of sugary products, many local authorities are introducing similar advertising restrictions.

National action is also needed to mirror local initiatives – for example, marketing and sponsorship regulations should be tightened – so that all of society can be supported to access nutritious food. We also know that many businesses would welcome clarity over rules so they can contribute positively to our wellbeing.

Progress has been made to reduce sugar and salt content in food following the Government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, but there is further to go and reformulation targets should be mandatory. The Soft Drinks Industry Levy has successfully contributed to reducing sugar consumption but should be expanded to include milk-based sugary drinks and an industry levy to make food healthier should be introduced.

Only through real collaboration will we achieve our goals. We know that the public are supportive and through campaigns like Recipe for Change, the public health community are committed to creating better places for us all to live, work and play in so that we can all live healthier, more productive lives for longer.

Find out more about the campaign here.

About the Association of Directors of Public Health

The Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) is the representative body for Directors of Public Health (DsPH) in the UK. It represents the professional views of all DsPH as the local leaders for the nation’s health.

The Association has a heritage dating back over 160 years and is a collaborative organisation, working in partnership with others to strengthen the voice for public health. It seeks to improve and protect the health of the population through collating and presenting the views of DsPH; advising on public health policy and legislation at a local, regional, national and international level; facilitating a support network for DsPH; and providing opportunities for DsPH to develop professional practice.

Prof. Matt Ashton is Co-Chair for the Association of Directors of Public Health’s Healthy Places Policy Advisory Group.

Professor Matt Ashton
Association of Directors of Public Health Sustain

Published 13 Mar 2024

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