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Healthy food vouchers are no golden ticket

By Jess Halliday

03-Jan-2011

Change4Life healthy food vouchers are just the ticket for food industry marketers. But changing eating habits requires consistent, co-ordinated policy – not hand-outs to ease the population’s post-Christmas conscience.

The timing could not be better for UK food industry to offer £250m worth of vouchers to encourage consumers to switch their usual foods to something a little healthier instead.

Who isn’t staring ruefully at their expanded post-festive figure in the mirror… and their shrunken bank balance? Throw a 2.5 per cent VAT increase into the mix and there may even be the odd Guardian reader willing to switch to the News of the World just to get their hands on a few deals and steals.

But while the food industry does have a pivotal role to play in encouraging healthy eating, we should not be fooled into thinking a gesture in January will have year-long consequences.

What happens all the vouchers have been cut out along the dotted lines and traded in? Getting people to try healthier foods is one thing. Getting them to buy them for the next 12 months and beyond is something else.

Healthier foods, for less

It’s no secret that the least healthy foods tend to carry the cheapest price tags. It’s a matter of modern economics that saturated fats and sugar cost less than nutritionally-rich fibres and essential fatty acids.

But if a few pence or cents off could be shaved off the healthier options as a permanent measure, surely they would be more attractive to the budget-conscious and the health-conscious, all the time.

And while we’re at it, it is none too helpful to keep parallel product ranges on the shelf. Yes, industry loves consumer choice… but there have to be limits and there can be no let up improving the nutritional profile of mainstream products. Making the full-fat, full-sugar versions less fatty and sugary will be a whole lot more effective than expecting people to plump for the alternatives because they think they need to.

Don’t change Change4Life

The Change4Life programme, under which the voucher scheme falls, was the brainchild of the UK’s former Labour government. Although current health minister Andrew Lansley has hailed the scheme, the ConDem government has indicated that it will not ‘lecture’ the population over health but give the food industry a long leash of self-regulation.

But long leashes can have a back-lash. Since the voucher scheme was unveiled mainstream newspapers have revelled in allegations in the media of ministers pandering to industry, and bribing the populace to eat more healthily.

Not such great public relations for the food industry after all?

Change4Life followed on the heels – and in the spirit – of Labour’s Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives cross-governmental strategy. The closest the UK has come to a coherent food policy, it touched not only industry issues, but also building on education and awareness of healthy lifestyles, and facilitating them through infrastructure and sports facilities, family and community support, changes in schools and workplaces, and personalised healthcare advice.

January is the time for wishing each other good health and prosperity. By sticking with a sensible, well-researched strategy, industry and consumers can achieve both in 2011.

Jess Halliday is editor of award-winning website FoodNavigator.com. Over the past twelve years she has worked in print, broadcast and online media in both Europe and the United States. She recently completed a MSc in Food Policy at City University in London.

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