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Is legislation the right tool to change diets?

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The impact of legislation on food ingredients and changing eating habits.

The establishment of a new campaign group which is intent on convincing food manufacturers to reduce the volume of sugar in every day food is the latest skirmish in the on-going battle over the food on our tables.

Late last year the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its plan to eliminate the use of trans-fats in the US food chain in a move which was portrayed as a rare victory for public health advocates over the food industry lobby.

The current focus in the UK on sugar content follows successful campaigns against salt levels and continues with governments around the world drawing plans for their next moves. Described as ‘most dangerous drug of the times’ by a Dutch nutritionist along with ‘…deadly for kidney health’ and ‘the new tobacco’ by the Daily Mail, sugar and its effects on health are rarely out of the news.

The recent move to reduce the percentage of sugar content at which fruit preserve can be called jam, came about due to competition rules rather than as a result of any debate on healthy diets but it does demonstrate the effectiveness of legislation which is why campaigning organisations will often trot out demands for new laws.

As we know, the reality is usually much more complicated than it first appears with consumption habits proving to be harder to break than the changes in behaviour an arbitrary 20% tax hike can deliver. Just look at the experience of Denmark and the reasons cited for its repeal of ‘fat’ and ‘sugar’ taxes.

It is clear that something more subtle is required rather than going straight to the nuclear option of outright bans on ingredients which are safe but common sense says that they should be consumed in moderation. The direction of travel on this issue is heading toward a more legislative model and while the food producers are adept at promoting product as part of healthier lifestyles, the sector is approaching a tipping point where the messages will have to change.

With politicians coming under increasing pressure to act, the industry will inevitably take subtle but significant voluntary steps to change the message around foodstuffs with high sugar content. The recent announcement by Tesco that it is to undertake greater promotion of healthy option snacks at checkouts being a case in point.

The UK’s current political non-interventionist ideology will continue to be tested as other countries opt for legislative solutions. Balancing the legitimate concerns of producers and any possible impact on economic growth against the advice of the medical establishment is the challenge facing our politicians.

It’s not yet defined which way this debate will go but it is likely to be with us for many years to come and be something of a rollercoaster ride.

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