WITH the global obesity crisis running out of control, it’s easy to assume the food industry is as flabby as most of the people it feeds. As I discovered last week, however, work is going on behind the scenes to

address Scotland’s dire health statistics, which show that two-thirds of adults and almost a third of children are obese or overweight, and around 5% have Type 2 diabetes (80% of whom are obese).

The UK Government’s childhood obesity plan, launched last autumn, gives soft drinks manufacturers two years to reduce sugar levels in fizzy drinks, and food manufacturers until 2020 to reduce it by 20% (5% in the

first year), or face a levy.

Whether such measures will make the slightest bit of difference remains a moot point. A sugar tax would have to be really high to force lasting change. Nevertheless, it will have an impact on the food sold in Scotland, and it’s expected that restrictions on fat and salt content will follow. Smaller portions are also being encouraged (the energy density of the average diet in Scotland is around 40% above dietary goals).

With its new obesity strategy, expected later this year, the Scottish Government has been urged to go further and impose stricter regulations on junk food promotions (although TV advertising is a reserved matter and control of supermarkets remains elusive).

Meanwhile, Scotland’s growing army of small-to-medium food and drink producers is busy liaising with academics and scientists to voluntarily find ways of reformulating existing and future products while retaining their flavour. Their work is both enlightening and encouraging.

The Food and Drink Federation Scotland (FDFS) has a reformulation common interest group of around 50 producers.

It got together last week in Edinburgh to discuss developments and ideas and sounded like more of a call to arms. As CEO David Thomson reminded them, they have the opportunity to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

Some have already taken new reformulations to market. The cake and biscuit manufacturer Macphie of Glenbervie, for example, has a turnover of £50m and 40% of that is in cake mixes sold to bakeries and coffee

shop chains throughout the UK. It is selling muffin mix and frosting that contains the sweetener fibre-inulin, which has reduced the sugar content to 29.5% compared to around 50% in other mixes. Bon Accord soft

drinks of Edinburgh don’t contain sugar at all.

Successful trials are ongoing where alginates from seaweed are incorporated into bread to help consumers lose weight. At the University of Edinburgh, fat replacement research is ongoing. Aberdeen and Glasgow

universities are also engaged in innovation.

Health by stealth – reformulating foods without shouting about it – avoids the potential for rejection by a largely nanny state-resistant public. On the other hand, simply making junk foods such as pies, burgers, cakes and biscuits healthier doesn’t necessarily help reeducate us into making better food choices. Neither, it’s argued, does reducing portion size. Cutting out sugar while retaining sweetness, for example, doesn’t stop people craving it.

The unanswered question is this. Can consumer behaviour really change for the better if we can continue to have our cake and eat it?