PHE’s ‘calorie reduction programme’: coming soon to a supermarket near you

So the crazies at Public Health England are actually going ahead with it. They really are going to put us on a diet, regardless of whether we want – or need – to be on one. When this bloated quango got its sugar reduction scheme underway a couple of years ago, I warned that it was only the start. PHE never made any secret of its intention to set arbitrary targets for salt and fat in addition to its 20 per cent target for sugar. Today it has unveiled its target for the daddy of them all: calories.

Once again, the target is a 20 per cent reduction and the food industry has been given until 2024 to achieve it. As I said in 2016:

‘That escalated quickly, didn’t it? With barely a word of consultation with the public, the unelected busy-bodies at Public Health England – whose knowledge of food production could be written on a grain of sand – are going to decide not only how much sugar and fat can be contained in food but also how much energy it can provide. This will apply not just to a handful of children’s foods but to virtually anything an adult chooses to eat inside or outside the home.’

When I said it would apply to virtually everything, I was not exaggerating. According to PHE’s press release, the food industry has six years to remove a fifth of the calories from the following: egg products, potato products, meat products, processed meats, poultry, fish, meat alternatives, pies, pastries, sausages, burgers, pasta, rice, noodles, savoury biscuits, crackers, bread with additions (e.g. ciabatta with olives), cooking sauces, table sauces, dressings, crisps, savoury snacks, ready meals, takeaways, dips, hummus, coleslaw, pizza, ‘food-to-go’, sandwiches, composite salads and soups.

It is difficult to find the words to describe how demented this policy is. Imagine a Soviet commissar, drunk on power and vodka, who had been driven mad after contracting syphilis. Even he would not issue an edict like this. It is off the scale of anything the ‘public health’ lobby has tried before. It represents the final severing of the thread that once connected Public Health England to the real world.

How is it to be achieved? Like most mad despots with five (or six) year plans, PHE are not ones for detail but they do offer three options:

1. Change the recipe

2. Encourage consumers to purchase lower calorie products

3. Reduce the portion size

Changing the recipe was supposed to be the name of the game when PHE started this crusade. If you think back – and it was not so long ago – the sugar panic began when Action on Sugar started complaining about the ‘shocking’ levels of sugar ‘hidden’ in pasta sauces, tomato ketchup, breakfast cereals and other everyday products. Public Health England concluded that it would be child’s play to reduce the sugar content in such items without anybody noticing.

There was a slight precedent for this. In the 1990s and noughties, food manufacturers had successfully reduced salt in some products without drawing too much ire from consumers. The salt reduction campaign was driven by Professor Graham MacGregor who created the activist charity Consensus Action on Salt and Health. In 2014, MacGregor branched off by creating Action on Sugar to replicate the work done on salt. His organisation is now officially called Consensus Action on Salt, Sugar and Health.

MacGregor’s view of the food supply is a simple one: people eat whatever the food industry tells them to, therefore all that needs to be done to tackle obesity is to force it to make its products less fattening. Food companies don’t respond to consumer demand. Consumers response to the whims of food companies and, for reasons that have never been explained, food companies enjoy putting excess salt, fat and sugar in their products. Maybe they do it for a laugh. Nobody knows, but since it doesn’t need to be in the food in the first place, no one will notice if it gets taken out.

That’s the theory. Human agency doesn’t play much of a role in it. As far as MacGregor is concerned, the food industry is incredibly powerful, advertising is irresistible and human beings do not have an innate taste for sugar, salt or fat. And so, as Oliver Cromwell once said, the people of England shall be given ‘not what they want but what is good for them.’

But taking a bit of salt out of a few products and replacing it with sugar or fat was a doddle compared with the challenge Public Health England is now setting (in any case, the salt reduction programme never got close to achieving a 20 per cent reduction). How does one remove 20 per cent of the calories from ‘fish’, for example? Or from a bottle of cooking oil? Or from rice? Or, for that matter, from pretty much any of the items on the list?

If slashing calories in food was a simple as PHE suggests, the food industry would have already done it. In many cases, it has already done it. Diet versions of countless food and drink brands exist, but the market response suggests that consumers do not like them as much as they like the original brands. This is not for want of advertising. Companies are constantly marketing low fat, low sugar and low calorie brands, but they cannot control which products we take off the shelf.

That brings us to the second option: ‘Encourage consumers to purchase lower calorie products’. They can encourage us all they like, but the consumer is sovereign. The makers of Lucozade and Ribena encouraged us to switch to their low-sugar varieties but most of us decided that we were happier with the originals. With the sugar tax coming into force next month, the originals have been taken off the market completely (to the delight of PHE) and the manufacturers are now desperately trying to ‘encourage’ us to drink the bastardised low-sugar versions that are being sold under the same name. If the social media response is anything to go by, this encouragement is falling on deaf ears.

‘Public health’ campaigners give advertising far more credit than it deserves. It cannot change people’s fundamental desires and it will not help Public Health England towards its 20 per cent goal unless the products being advertised are tasty. Which they won’t be.

That only leaves portion sizes. When PHE’s mad plan was first devised, shrinking the product was considered a last resort, but once Public Health England’s mandarins realised that reformulation was a trickier beast than they had thought, it soon became central to the sugar reduction scheme. It will inevitably be at the heart of the calorie reduction scheme as well. Faced with the choice of rendering their products unpalatable through reformulation or shrinking them while charging the same price, manufacturers will choose ‘shrinkflation’ every time. We have already seen it happen with chocolate bars and biscuits. We will now see it happen with everything else. Smaller sandwiches, smaller bags of pasta, smaller packets of crisps. Smaller everything. And if you find the new sizes too small, just buy two.

It is hard to believe that any of this is happening. Why are we allowing these strange people to take control of the food supply? How have been railroaded into a choice between tasteless food and smaller portions? Who will rid us of this turbulent quango?