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Health by stealth

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If people won't change theireating habits by choice, we'll do it by stealth.  So seems to be the thinking behind the recentannouncement that leading food and drink manufacturers have agreed to cap andcut calories found in their products.

30% reductions in calorie levelsseem a common target, with Coca-Cola, Premier Foods (owners of brands includingMr Kipling and Hovis) and Asda agreeing to this. Tesco apparently have the better marketershaving used a much more exciting total calorie value, claiming to be on targetto 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 matchingreduction in price. In a similar vein, anemployee at one multinational manufacturer once joked with me that it's nosurprise companies love low-fat products - it's about replacing ingredientswith cheaper alternatives but charging consumers more.  Thankfully, although "reviewing calorieportions" is on the agenda, reformulating products appears to be the mainstrategy in reducing calories.

Companies have agreed to thesereductions by choice as part of the ‘Responsibility Deal'.  The deal being that if manufacturersaccept responsibility it won't be forced upon them through legislation. You might think it appropriate that the foodindustry was fed this Morton's fork.

The approach hasn't been withoutcontroversy but it has its benefits.  Itwould have been difficult to legislate for the wide variety of action now beingtaken.  Plus, as companies have agreed tothem they should more readily implement them without the game ofspot-the-loophole they might have played with legislation.  However if they don't, there is no stick topunish them with apart from naming and shaming.

Time will judge whether thesepledges full of promise turn into action on-the-ground.  It will be interesting to see the impactthese measures have on public health.  If found to be successful, health by stealthmight become a major tactic in improving public health.

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