Dayna Brackley, The Independent
In case you missed it, there’s been a cake-related furore in the news this week. Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the Food Standards Agency and professor of diet and population health at the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, infuriated office workers across the country when she said in The Times that if people didn’t bring cakes into the office, she wouldn’t eat them.
“Horrendous Nanny Statist”, the Institute of Economic Affairs labelled her. Twitter users called her untrustworthy, accused her of having impulse control issues and posted taunting pictures of their cakes. The FSA swiftly issued a statement to distance themselves from the comments.
But did she actually mean we should cease all cake eating in the office? No, that wasn’t her point. Cake was just used as a symbol to describe the wider issue of how our food environments can be toxic, and can make it harder to eat healthily. We live in a world where kids are exposed to 15 billion junk food ads a year; where the supermarket aisles are crammed with buy-one-get-one-free offers on sugary and high-fat foods; where healthy food is three times more expensive than unhealthy food; and where chicken shops line the streets near our children’s schools.
Jebb was writing in her academic capacity about obesity, as part of the Times Health Commission. The main thrust of her argument is that we don’t place value on the impact of these environments. That we don’t recognise that advertisers have “the biggest influence on people’s behaviours”. Her point was that if we don’t start to pay attention to these environments, our obesity crisis — where one in three children leave primary school overweight and two-thirds of adults are above healthy weight — will continue to have a devastating impact on people’s health, and on our NHS.
Is eating healthily just willpower and informed choice if you see nine adverts for sugary drinks on your way to work, the chocolate bar is the first thing you see at the till (and in some cases is cheaper than the fruit), and one in four of the places you can buy food on the high street is a fast-food outlet? Her argument is that it’s “not enough to rely on the ‘extraordinary efforts’ of personal willpower needed to avoid overeating in a society that is constantly plying people with food”.
And was she really comparing cake to passive smoking? Again, no. Jebb’s point is that smoking rates have declined because of a “supportive environment”. You can’t smoke in a restaurant, in a car with children, or in the office — and when you do buy a pack of cigarettes, the packet looks up at you with a shocking image of a smoker’s mouth destroyed by mouth cancer, or a child on a ventilator because of second-hand smoke. Those government measures could easily be described as “Nanny State”, but we’ve both accepted them and, more importantly, they work; only 13.3 per cent of us smoke today, compared to 20 per cent in 2011.
Jebb doesn’t say we should shy away from personal responsibility; her point instead is that’s much easier to exercise that personal responsibility if the environment (and the government) is supporting you.
But our government won’t do that for food. They’ve delayed junk food advertising bans in the UK until 2025, they’ve placed great emphasis on our individual responsibility for our weight, they’ve encouraged us to exercise, and the former PM Liz Truss came outright and said “people don’t want the government telling them what to eat”. Professor Jebb isn’t asking our government to dictate what we put in our mouths; she’s asking them to make our food environments safer spaces for us to make our decisions. She’s asking for us to not be set up to fail.
If the metaphorical cake wasn’t advertised to us (and our children) all day, we might stand more of a fighting chance when it came to making healthy choices.
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