UK Government delays changes in junk food regulations

UK Government delays changes in junk food regulations
© iStock/krblokhin

Junk food regulation delays outlined by the UK Government is slowing down the battle with rising obesity levels.  

In a new perspective published in Obesity, researchers at the University of Leeds have argued that the UK Government’s delays in implementing junk food regulations which aim to restrict promotions on foods High in Fat, Sugar, and Salt (HFSS) is slowing down the fight against obesity rates. 

“The government’s decision will delay the much-needed transformation of retail food environments and their promoted products, both of which are highly influential on what foods people buy and eat. The likely consequence is a huge setback in improving UK population diets, obesity levels and health,” said Sally Moore, PhD, RD, School of Food Science and Nutrition, University of Leeds, UK. Moore is the corresponding author of the perspective. 

The urgent need for junk food regulations

Alongside restriction of unhealthy food promotions, the planned approaches within the UK Childhood Obesity plan are planning additional regulations banning HFSS television advertising before 9 pm and paid for advertising online, both are also facing similar delays. The junk food regulations are aiming to target “youth” who are described by the UK government as “uniquely vulnerable to the techniques used to promote sales”.  

The research team outlined that the junk food regulations aim to change retail food environments by producing less-healthy products and turning the focus toward healthy foods. The regulations required intense scrutiny of each product’s nutritional composition to understand which products could or could not be advertised. Restricted products are HFSS and are classified based on their calories and certain nutrients of public health concern whilst recognising contributions such as fruits, vegetables or fibre. The researchers noted, “without this regulation, commercial retail food environments will be difficult to change.” 

One impact of the delay is that the anticipated reductions in population calorie intakes that were originally modelled in the junk food regulation policy will now be less than expected. Furthermore, the delays to the junk food regulation implementation are expected to worsen the growing inequalities in dietary quality and obesity levels that are associated with socioeconomic status.  

The researchers explained the concern with how the UK Government rationalised the delay which they claim the current unprecedented global economic situation is playing a role. Rising food and fuel costs are a concern for healthcare and nutrition professionals as well as the number of people at risk for food security.  

“There is an urgent need to address this equitably and ethically by reducing socioeconomic disparities and levels of poverty,” the authors said. 

Tackling the obesity crisis

The researchers argued in their study that the UK Government appears to have retreated from resolving the ongoing obesity crisis with an emphasis on individual willpower instead of the food industry. 

“Willpower alone cannot explain successful weight management,” said Tom Butler, PhD, Faculty of Health, Social Care and Medicine and the Cardiorespiratory Research Centre, Edge Hill University, Ormskirk, Lancashire, UK, a co-author of the study. Moore and Butler added that “delaying these policies will, yet again, leave public health and clinical practitioners tackling obesity with less-effective approaches focused on individual willpower and information provision.” 

“The UK government’s adoption of restrictions on promotions of less-healthy foods as well as their advertising would have been a huge leap forward in nutrition-related public policy. Not only would the adoption of such a policy be in line with current scientific understanding, but there is also significant public support in the UK for such policies. While individual willpower does indeed play a role in weight-related outcomes, providing a supportive environment plays a critical role in strengthening and fortifying individuals in their initial and sustained efforts to reach healthier weights and lifestyles. Policies that favour the uptake and promotion of high-energy, nutrient-poor foods can only serve to damage the general public’s health in the long run,” said Travis Masterson, PhD, MS, Broadhurst Career Development Professor for the Study of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, The Pennsylvania State University. Masterson was not associated with the perspective piece. 

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