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Who is responsible for the poor health of the nation?

15 May 2008

Who is responsible for the poor health of the nation? Tony Horton, chief executive of Tricon Foodservice Consultants, has clear views on the issue - and how the problem should be tackled

Healthy eating continues to grab headlines, but this is nothing new as an appeal was made to the Government back in 1981 through the Committee on Medical Affairs report about the unacceptable levels of sugar, salt and fat in our daily intake. Why then has it taken so long to be brought to the public attention, and who's to blame for our poor eating habits?

We know that from an early age eating habits will impact on a child's wellbeing. Surveys such as last September's Food for the Brain Child Survey, the largest ever in Britain, surveyed more than 10,000 children and showed a direct correlation between poor eating habits, poor behaviour and academic performance.

Meanwhile, research in the workplace such as the Optimum Nutrition UK Survey, which compared nutritional habits among 37,000 adults, showed that eating unhealthily doesn't just impact negatively on work productivity, but is also linked to many common ailments such as accentuated levels of stress, high blood pressure, digestive problems and poor wellbeing. High intakes of sugar, stimulants (tea and coffee) and animal fats have eroded our wellbeing so much that less than 10% of the working population now feel they can truthfully say that they live and work in a state of optimum wellbeing.

I believe government complacency over the years coupled with the self-interest of some food manufacturers have slowed down the rate of change that is so needed to improve the wellbeing of the country. While there have been recent initiatives from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to drive change within government departments, there has been a ceaseless series of obstacles put up by clients, caterers and consumers alike.

The university sector is increasing its services for a growing breed of nocturnal students - from caffeine vending in 24-hour facilities to the rise of coffee outlets on campuses. There is undeniably a demand for all-day caffeine but are we offering students the right type of fuel for the brain?

Although we can't expect children to cut sugar from their diets completely, or coffee bars to be removed from universities and the workplace overnight, as an industry we can take responsibility for providing better alternatives, enabling the educated consumer to make a conscious choice. Who educates the consumer is another issue.

Juice bars have been a great success story, not just in the workplace but as mobile units in shopping centres and on the high street. It would be good to see more available across all sectors of the industry as well as within communities. The ingredients have a big impact on the health and wellbeing of consumers - a real alternative for those wanting food that will take them to an optimum level of wellbeing.

In food retailing, keen to join the health frenzy, supermarket nutritional labelling is often open to abuse. It can be misleading, offering few or no benefits, or confusing to adults and most children who may lack the skills to interpret them. This has paved the way for an emerging breed of food retailers such as Whole Foods, which opened its first UK store in Kensington last June, getting coverage for its health-focused food and ingredients. These embrace not only health issues but sustainability and animal welfare.

Caterers also need to catch up with food retailers in recognising the importance of displaying not just the health benefits but the ethical credentials too. Some caterers often find themselves locked in with nationwide food suppliers and are more driven by the margins on manufactured or processed foods than meeting the increasing demands for sustainable foods. As a result, some smaller specialist caterers are growing rapidly, using their flexibility to provide local, organic food. An important underlying issue here is the freshness and origin of the raw product, which maximises not only the taste but the nutritional value of what we consume.

This is not about revolution but evolution - and food service operators must lead the way by offering real alternatives. It's about adding, not taking away.

Tricon Foodservice Consultants, www.tricon.co.uk , Tel 020 8591 5593

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