Could government failings on obesity strategy be industry’s gain?

If the UK government’s ability to deliver its childhood obesity strategy reflected the significance of the issue, you’d be forgiven for thinking it was not a big deal. Quite the opposite. As a health select committee report reminds us:

Treating obesity and its consequences is currently estimated to cost the NHS £5.1 billion every year. It is one of the risk factors for type 2 diabetes, which accounts for spending of £8.8 billion a year, almost 9% of the NHS budget.

This isn’t just a job for government though. Business plays a crucial role in helping tackle obesity. For decades a number of large food companies have done their level best to fill our bellies with copious amounts of sugar. But there’s a huge opportunity to create genuinely healthy sweet-tasting foods, and even to disrupt consumer patterns by offering new and taste-redefining food and drinks.

Lacklustre innovation

Innovation efforts have largely focused on finding clever ways of marketing products to us, offering possibly health-harming sugar-free alternatives and hiding sugar in food products that many consumers would be shocked to discover contain sugar at all.

Much of the past and current innovation has focused on maximising profits and market share which has thrown up worrying health concerns – for example the impact of food additives on the human auto-immune system.

When it comes to sugar, efforts have been focused on searching for sweet substitutes. Artificial sweeteners, however, come with their own health problems.

Meanwhile, natural sugar alternatives such as Stevia have been slow to penetrate the market. And there is evidence that even safer alternatives may simply continue to train us to avoid less sweet healthier foods, grooming our sweetness addiction even further. So, innovation that substitutes sugar for healthy sweeteners may simply not be enough to deal with the obesity crisis. It could even make the problem worse.

Game changing opportunities

Yet there are game-changing opportunities that parallel radical innovations in other sectors such as energy (solar, wind and even more unusual alternatives like radio waves), cars (hybrids and electric) and even paint (water based paints). Innovating like this isn’t easy, but it does show a willingness to think out of the box – a vital ingredient.

There are market opportunities here as well as a chance to put innovation to the service of human health. James Dyson achieved this with innovative leaps forward in environmentally friendlier (and health-friendlier) hand-dryers. And the growth of waterless urinals is another example of radical thinking and design that has taken over an established sector.

More out of the box thinking is required from the food industry. bankbryan/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

Sadly, however, innovation is limited to the fringes of food corporations. None are yet committed to taking a fundamental look at the way they produce food, and instead tinker with and repackage the same old products.

The way forward

Real innovation is often disruptive in positive ways to markets. There is an opportunity here for firms to really look at the design of food in relation to current health.

The challenge is to see obesity as a critical issue, to question the fundamentals of the food we eat and to begin to imagine things totally differently. Other industries show the potential for fundamental innovation when under fire. The most obvious examples are in the field of renewable energy, which has been developed in the face of climate change. Hybrid vehicles and solar chargers are classic examples of new income streams that arise from thinking and designing differently.

The food industry has a chance and a duty to radically innovate. But it seems more intent on developing sugar substitutes or reducing the size of their servings, and sneaking in an extra buck of profit in the process.

So, what is the way forward? One possibility would be for large food manufacturers to accept that their product systems are stuck and need an overhaul. In the financial sector, Visa partners with startups to explore more out of the box thinking. And it doesn’t just do it to be charitable. It does it because the best solutions may need to come from smaller scale and fresher thinking innovators. Yet I struggled to find one example of a start-up offering innovations in the area of sugar in food on Uniliver’s start-up partners initiative, Foundry.

So are food companies up to the task of responding to the obesity crisis? Do they even want to? Will a sugar tax simply lead to more wily marketing methods and product tinkering?

The obesity epidemic in no longer a ticking time bomb. The explosion is happening right now. With the government’s strategy facing further delays, it is time for industry to act. And that starts with real innovation.