The Processed Foodscape – Who Should Take Responsibility?

Recently, a range of exhortations have emanated from organisations such as NICE in an attempt to tackle Britain’s growing obesity problem. There is no doubt that this problem has to be confronted; in the past twenty years the percentage of people classified as clinically obese has almost doubled. Initiatives such as Fit 4Life are designed to educate people in balancing caloric intake with energy expended. More recent calls focused on childhood obesity state parents should provide children with only water to drink and avoid sweet treats.

While we fully endorse efforts to promote healthy lifestyle behaviours to help people manage their weight, there is a critical need to take the discussion forward in terms of the mistaken assumption that education directly translates into behaviour change. Firstly, the food message is often encoded in a ‘how you should behave’ rhetoric, which is often decoded by commentators and the public alike as the ‘nanny’ state telling us what we should do. Such messages are often resisted just because of how they are framed. Secondly, while we can pass knowledge about healthy lifestyle choices onto people, this does not ensure either their literacy or capability. For example, when nutritional information such as calories was first put on restaurant menus in New York, people often struggled to know what the information meant (literacy) and how to act upon that knowledge (capability).

Why is it so difficult for people to implement the knowledge about making healthier food choices and increasing activity? Human behaviour is complex, and multiple factors beyond individual choice contribute to obesity. Research illustrates, for example, that people have innate preferences for sugar and fat. However, capability is also highly dependent upon the environment in which the behaviour occurs. It is unrealistic to expect individuals to always make the ‘right choice’ when faced with multiple easy, inexpensive, and less healthy alternatives. This is clearly illustrated within our existing processed foodscape. Children eat at school with their peers – if they are not introduced to soft drinks, confectionary and ‘fast food’ there, they certainly will be at the convenience stores and takeaways so often in their vicinity. Parents can of course try to limit sweet treats, but these efforts will be challenged by ample access to these treats in coffee shops and friends’ houses.

The Pandora’s box of cheap processed food was opened a long time ago, and its effects will continue to impact the health and wellbeing of all of us unless we do something to try to close it. To enable people to make sensible food choices, there needs to be less temptation and probably less choice. Researchers at Virginia Tech have identified that when there is more choice, we eat more. When we have the choice of both healthy and fatty foods we may well pick both, leading to a higher overall calorie intake. So what does this mean? Many food companies producing items from colas to biscuits have introduced low calorie versions of their products alongside their high calorie versions. What is needed is a complete removal of the high calorie versions to effectively limit choice. Of course this move is a marketing nightmare; no one wants to limit their brands’ representation on the supermarket shelf. But if we want to move an individual’s healthy choice-related literacy to behavioural capability, food producers and retailers have to take responsibility for this processed foodscape and actively limit choice.

Professor Isabelle Szmigin, Birmingham Business School, and Professor Janice L. Thompson, School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences