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If people won't change their eating habits by choice, we'll do it by stealth. So seems to be the thinking behind the recent announcement that leading food and drink manufacturers have agreed to cap and cut calories found in their products.
30% reductions in calorie levels seem a common target, with Coca-Cola, Premier Foods (owners of brands including Mr Kipling and Hovis) and Asda agreeing to this. Tesco apparently have the better marketers having used a much more exciting total calorie value, claiming to be on target to remove 1.8 billion calories from their soft drinks.
This all sounds very impressive, but the cynic in me had visions of reducing pack sizes with no matching reduction in price. In a similar vein, an employee at one multinational manufacturer once joked with me that it's no surprise companies love low-fat products - it's about replacing ingredients with cheaper alternatives but charging consumers more. Thankfully, although "reviewing calorie portions" is on the agenda, reformulating products appears to be the main strategy in reducing calories.
Companies have agreed to these reductions by choice as part of the ‘Responsibility Deal'. The deal being that if manufacturers accept responsibility it won't be forced upon them through legislation. You might think it appropriate that the food industry was fed this Morton's fork.
The approach hasn't been without controversy but it has its benefits. It would have been difficult to legislate for the wide variety of action now being taken. Plus, as companies have agreed to them they should more readily implement them without the game of spot-the-loophole they might have played with legislation. However if they don't, there is no stick to punish them with apart from naming and shaming.
Time will judge whether these pledges full of promise turn into action on-the-ground. It will be interesting to see the impact these measures have on public health. If found to be successful, health by stealth might become a major tactic in improving public health.