Healthy fast food takeaways: an oxymoron or a viable goal?

A team of researchers and practitioners from London Metropolitan University, the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health, Alehm, the Economic and Social Research Council, and the London Food Board have just released a new toolkit to encourage healthier takeaways in low-income communities. The toolkit focuses on the business case for adopting healthier cooking practices and seeks to identify healthier business models.

The findings, which were presented at London City Hall yesterday, highlighted the need for local and national policy change to shift the tide. The report describes the lessons from the many local projects working with takeaways. Here in the UK, as in the US, these interventions have run into systemic barriers – such as a global supply chain that makes sugary drinks and unhealthy oils cheaper than their healthier alternatives and a saturated, hyper-competitive local market that drives prices down and demand up. While I commend the work of these local initiatives, it seems clear that we will not be able to move the dial on this issue unless we enact policies to level the playing field and create economies of scale. We need to aggregate demand for healthy products to ensure availability and bring down costs. Without policy change, we will be trapped by the competing values of maximizing profits versus maximizing health.

So where do we start?

  • We need to say enough! and limit the number of fast food restaurants and other food retailers near schools. If businesses wish to capture the youth market, they should be required to offer healthy choices.
  • We need to make sure that restaurants who offer children’s meals provide water as the default drink and meet basic nutrition standards.
  • We need to tax sugary drinks, to reduce their attractiveness, make healthy choices more competitive, and create a funding stream for education and other interventions.
  • We need to employ creative pricing strategies, including requiring proportional pricing on sugary drinks and setting maximum serving sizes.
  • We need to require that drinking water is free and attractive to customers.

And, yes, we need education to continue to support demand. We need to ensure that the healthy choice is the default in our schools, public buildings and parks. And suppliers and distributors must be engaged in this work. It’s clear that those who believe in healthy takeaways are swimming against a global food system that sells unhealthy food cheaply. We won’t be able to get out of this mess without major social change.

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