Fuel us don't fool us

Council Steps up to the Plate

Childhood health issues, such as obesity and tooth decay, continue to be a significant concern in Sheffield and across the UK. Bite Back, a youth-led organisation, has recently published a report titled “Fuel Us Don’t Fool Us” that sheds light on the broken food system that puts the health of younger generations at risk. Despite the challenges, there is hope if businesses and the government take action to remove junk food from the menu, something Sheffield City Council (SCC) are keen to do.

Childhood obesity is a severe problem that can lead to physical and mental health issues, as well as an increased risk of obesity in adulthood. Unfortunately, in Sheffield, more than one in five children are overweight when they start school, and by the time they reach ages 10-11, this number increases to one in three. Additionally, over a third of five-year-olds in Sheffield may have dental problems, including enamel decay or more serious issues.

Bite Back’s report highlights the challenges faced by young people in navigating a food environment filled with unhealthy options. The report investigates the ten largest global food and drink businesses operating in the UK and their sales of packaged food and drink products. The report found that the majority of global food manufacturers depend on selling unhealthy products in the UK, the biggest food manufacturers dominate digital advertising spend in categories such as chocolate, crisps, and ice cream, and seven of the top 10 businesses use child-appealing tactics on packaging for unhealthy food. 

The study found that for seven out of 10 of the businesses, more than two-thirds of their packaged food and drink sales came from products that are high in fat, sugar, or salt. Additionally, the top five categories of food and drink products by sales value are chocolate, savoury snacks, reduced sugar soft drinks, regular soft drinks, and ice cream, which are not part of a healthy diet, according to the Eatwell Guide.

Food manufacturers spend a lot of money on online advertisements for these unhealthy products, especially those that are popular with children. This advertising makes children ask for and consume these unhealthy foods more often. Even the packaging of these products is designed to appeal to children with cartoon characters and playful images. In fact, the government’s own Environmental Change and Food Security report noted that for every £5 spent on public health education, £200 is spent on junk food ads.

The report provides recommendations for both the government and businesses to tackle these issues. For food businesses, the report recommends selling more healthy foods and measuring progress using a model that considers the nutrition of the food. It also recommends stopping advertising unhealthy foods high in sugar, salt, and fat and using clear and easy-to-understand labels instead. By 2024, Bite Back would like businesses to set a goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and become “carbon neutral” by 2050 to prevent climate change and protect the health of future generations.

For governments, the report recommends making laws that prevent companies from advertising unhealthy foods on TV, online, and in stores. This includes ads that use popular cartoon characters and other tactics to appeal to kids. It also recommends using clear and easy-to-understand labels on unhealthy foods and requiring companies to report on how much unhealthy food they sell and how well they are doing to protect the environment. The government should also encourage companies to make healthier foods by offering them financial incentives.

The council in Sheffield is already taking steps in the right direction to provide better health outcomes for local youth.

Bite Back youth campaigners met with SCC officials and asked them to increase options for healthy and affordable food and reduce the sale of unhealthy food in council-owned spaces, especially in sporting and leisure facilities where the issue is essential to operations. Images of the strong contrast of a health-focused facility housing sugar and fat-laden vending machines were used in the meetings. As a result, the council is seeking a new food operator for sports and leisure facilities who will put the focus back on healthy, nutritious offerings and avoid the display of high-fat, high-sugar products.

In another recent development, Junk food ads have been banned from SCCl-owned billboards. It will also apply to the council’s online media and sponsorship opportunities.  The “Sheffield is Sweet Enough” initiative led by the SCC further underscores the city’s commitment to combating sugar-related health issues. Over the past five years, this initiative has provided invaluable resources to educate residents on the dangers of excessive sugar consumption and empower them to make healthier dietary choices. Additionally, SCC’s proposal to ban new takeaways near schools demonstrates a proactive approach to creating environments conducive to healthier lifestyles for our city’s children.

The issue of childhood health in Sheffield and the UK is a serious concern that needs to be addressed by both businesses and governments. The Bite Back report highlights the broken food system that puts profits over the health of our youth. The recent steps taken by SCC set a precedentprescient for others to follow in creating environments that promote healthier lifestyles for our youth. With continued efforts and collaboration between various stakeholders, we can work towards a healthier future for our children and the generations to come.

ShefFood is the food partnership for Sheffield. For more information or to get involved, please contact ShefFood’s Partnership Coordination Team at info@sheffood.org.uk or visit sheffood.org.uk