Some grants to companies are greater than the amounts spent by local health services on tackling obesity, said the Coronary Prevention Group. Photograph: Anthony Devlin/PA
Obesity charities say Innovate UK should not be paying multinationals to invent an energy-efficient chocolate machine or a new way to dry potatoes.
Snack food and confectionery companies, including Nestlé and PepsiCo, are paid substantial government subsidies to help them make products that will damage the nation’s health, according to charities involved in heart attack prevention and obesity.
Mondelez, which split from Kraft and owns the Cadbury’s brand, was given nearly £638,000 by Innovate UK – formerly known as the Technology Strategy Board – from 2013 to 2015 to help the multinational giant develop a process to distribute nuts and raisins more regularly in its chocolate bars.
Nestlé received more than £487,000 to invent an energy-efficient machine for making chocolate, while PepsiCo was awarded £356,000 to help develop new ways of drying potatoes and vegetables to make crisps.
The Coronary Prevention Group, in association with the World Obesity Federation, says government money should not be spent on initiatives that will produce unhealthy snack foods and worsen the country’s serious obesity and disease problems.
“Some of these grants are greater than the amounts spent by local health services tackling overweight in adults and children,” said Prof Philip James, chair of the group’s trustees.
Critics argue that the nutritional value of food should be taken into account whenever government funds are spent. That includes spending on canteens in government offices and the NHS, which frequently offer high-sugar snacks and drinks.
The health impact of the products should be the first criterion for giving out public funds - Tim Lobstein, World Obesity Federation
In their report, Nutrient Profiling: Changing the food of Britain, launched at an event on Friday, they say the government is not serious about improving Britain’s diet. “We have identified 200 opportunities for taking a grip on UK food supplies and helping consumers, especially those on lower incomes, to make healthier choices,” said James, who is also honorary professor of nutrition at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Government subsidies to the food industry also come from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Rural Development Programme for England. The grants are often made to large companies that have the capacity to undertake research on food processes. While many may be for laudable purposes, says the report, others “raise questions about their impact on availability and price of foods which undermine dietary advice”.
Among them is nearly £31,800 for the conversion of a barn into an ice cream shop and £12,500 for expansion of a biscuit production unit. Three grants of around £100,000 each from the BBSRC are for improving the production of wafers in confectionery.
Innovate UK says the money is to make the companies’ food processes more energy-efficient and reduce their carbon footprint. In the case of Mondelez, for instance, a better way of distributing nuts in chocolate bars would mean that fewer nuts have to be bought by the company, reducing the amount of transportation used.
“The goal of the projects highlighted was to help reduce emissions and water usage in food processing,” said a spokesman. “These large firms produce a lot of food, which uses a lot of energy, so to make a difference we need to work with those large companies to help reduce their carbon footprints.”
He said they were also working with food companies to improve the nutritional content of their products and reduce food waste –they had supported a high-fibre white bread through a grant to Warburtons, for instance, and a low-calorie chocolate. “We recognise just how important nutrition is going to be in the food industry in the next five to 10 years,” he said.
But Tim Lobstein, director of policy at the World Obesity Federation, felt that government money should not be spent on assisting major confectionery and snack food manufacturers.
“While there may be good reasons to encourage companies to improve efficiency and reduce environmental impact, we also urge that the health impact of the products should be the first criterion for giving out public funds,” he said. “Why are we helping multinational corporations to make chocolate and snacks cheaper while obesity and diabetes rates are rocketing?”
Seven out of 10 middle-aged adults in the UK are overweight and nearly half have high blood pressure, the charities say. Changes in the nation’s diet are vital for better health. If everybody ate the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, for instance, it would save 42,200 deaths a year, according to Ofcom’s impact assessment of TV advertising of food and drink to children in 2006.