The new WHO plan calls for a range of measures to stymy obesity’s upward trend, including urging food and beverage companies to cut levels of salt and sugar in their products, replace saturated and trans-fats with unsaturated fats, and reduce portion sizes.
And in a world where more than 40 million children under the age of five are overweight, it also calls on countries to strictly control the marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children.
Taking on marketing aimed at youngsters was “incredibly important,” Stewart told AFP, insisting that food and beverage corporations for too long have been “taking advantage of children’s inherent vulnerabilities by marketing them unhealthy food that makes them sick.”
The industry itself has welcomed most of the WHO proposals, claiming it had already made strides both in “reformulating” existing products to make them healthier and in voluntarily reining in the advertising of unhealthy foods and drinks to youngsters.
The recommended actions “are ones we support and have been implementing on a voluntary basis since 2004,” said Jane Reid of the International Food an Beverage Alliance, which represents the world’s largest food and drink corporations, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and Nestle.
The organisation, which maintains that voluntary action and self-regulation by companies is the answer to the obesity problem, was less supportive of the WHO plan’s call for countries to consider taxing unhealthy foods and subsidising healthier choices in a bid to impact eating habits.
“Fiscal measures aimed specifically to change behaviour are complex to design and enforce,” Reid wrote in an email to AFP, adding there was little proof such taxes would help improve eating habits.
And, she maintained, a food tax “would be felt hardest by low-income families,” who might “compensate for unanticipated budget shortfalls by buying more energy-dense, lower-nutrient foods.”
Stewart meanwhile cautioned against giving the industry players widely blamed for the obesity epidemic too much say in how to solve the problem.
“What we really need are statutory regulations that are binding and make a real impact on kids’ health,” he said.