Artillery Row

Sweet taste of sovereignty

It seems “Global Britain” is smaller and less delicious

If you want to know what the new, outlook-looking, post-Brexit, global Britain is all about, the Department of Health dropped a clue this week. In a punch on the nose for embittered Remoaners, it announced that the UK “has been chosen by the World Health Organization (WHO) to lead a new Sugar and Calorie Reduction Network to take global action on sugar and calorie reduction.” In a press release, the Department of Health mentioned twice that the WHO’s EU region “covers around 50 countries” and has “a much wider reach than the European Commission’s remit.” In your face, Eurocrats!

The UK has been selected because of its “world-leading expertise in domestic sugar and calorie reduction”. The UK may be one of the fattest nations in Europe, but thanks to the nearly-dead Public Health England it “has seen good progress with its sugar reduction programme — with sugar reduced by 13 per cent in breakfast cereals, yogurts and fromage frais”. Swarthy foreigners are naturally eager to emulate this triumph and they kneel at our feet awaiting instruction. They, too, want to make chocolate bars slightly smaller and corn flakes less tasty.

Sugar, salt and fat aren’t added to food for a laugh but because they are integral to a vast range of popular products

“Today’s announcement puts into action the UK’s ‘Global Britain’ ambitions”, said the Department of Health, presumably with a straight face. The scheme will be run by the new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities which opens for business at the start of next month as the replacement for Public Health England. If there was any doubt that the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities would be Public Health England with new stationery, it has been confirmed by its embrace of this dog’s dinner of a policy.

The sugar reduction scheme was one of Public Health England’s greatest follies, which automatically puts it in the top twenty of any institution’s greatest follies. It stemmed from the timelessly preposterous notion that the food industry can take the most crucial ingredients out of food without affecting its taste and make consumers lose weight without noticing. It was known as “health by stealth” and was the kind of ruse that a small child might come up with. Like infants, Public Health England have a simplistic view of human behaviour and believe in magic.

In 2015, Public Health England announced that it would “work with” the food industry to reduce the sugar content of most processed food by 20 per cent by 2020. This target seemed to have been selected on the basis of numerical alliteration and had no chance of being reached. Substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar in soft drinks is simple enough, but it doesn’t work with food. Even if consumers will tolerate the flavour, sweeteners are a hundred times stronger than sugar so you only need tiny quantities of them. What are you supposed to put in a chocolate bar to give it body and texture? Salt? 

It can’t be done and Public Health England had no knowledge of food manufacturing to bring to the table. Josie Appleton has described in hilarious detail how food companies had to explain to the health wonks that they don’t put sugar, salt and fat in food for a laugh but because they are integral to a vast range of popular products. Among other lessons, Public Health England learned that jam cannot be legally sold as jam unless it is at least 50 per cent sugar. Finally realising that reformulation was wholly unrealistic for sweets, chocolate bars and many other sugary products, PHE quietly changed the rules and accepted portion size reduction as a type of reformulation. 

The industry could try to reformulate its products but it couldn’t force people to buy them

Confectionery companies duly went about shrinking some of their products, but it was not enough to prevent the scheme descending into farce. When Public Health England’s Progress Report was published last October, it could only boast a three per cent reduction in the sugar content of the targeted food products between 2015 and 2019. It was delighted by a 13 per cent reduction in the sugar content of yogurts, fromage frais and breakfast cereals, but less happy with the 1.6 per cent reduction in the biscuit category and a pitiful 0.4 per cent reduction in the chocolate category. Insofar as this was “progress” it was totally undermined by the pesky public who upped their intake of sugar from 723,103 tonnes in 2015 to 741,966 tonnes in 2019. 

When population growth was taken into account, it was a wash. As PHE reported, there was “no change in sugar purchased per person from the food product categories included in the programme”. The industry could try to reformulate its products but it couldn’t force people to buy them. With heroic insouciance, the great British public increased its consumption of chocolate by 16 per cent and its consumption of biscuits and confectionery by 7 per cent. Consumption of breakfast cereals, yogurts and fromage frais — the jewels in the crown of the reformulation programme — all declined.

Public Health England lamented the “reduction in the proportion of total sales from [the] lower sugar categories and increases in sales in higher sugar categories” and concluded that: “Overall these changes have resulted in more sugar from these products now appearing in shopping baskets than was the case in 2015.”

A more dismal failure of public health policy is hard to imagine, although PHE managed it by getting everything wrong on COVID-19. Its gross incompetence in handling the pandemic ultimately led to its abolition. The handover to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities gave the government the perfect opportunity to kick this ludicrous project into touch. Instead, it has revived it in partnership with the only health agency to have a worse record on Covid than PHE: the incompetent and corrupt World Health Organisation. 

There is something almost poetic about the first action of Public Health England’s successor being to get into bed with an agency that has facilitated the death of millions to promote a policy that has failed on an epic scale. The world of “public health” is such a clown show that it has passed entirely without comment.

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