Promoting a healthier food environment in European Schools

Marking one year since the European soft drink industry pledged to remove added sugar soft drinks from secondary schools across the EU, UNESDA recently supported a wide-ranging Euractiv debate exploring how to help young people enjoy healthy diets and lifestyles. The discussion brought together experts from the European Commission, academia and industry associations to explore meaningful actions to help create a healthy environment both inside schools and in the family environment.

During the event, Yannis Manios, Professor of Nutrition & Dietetics at Athens Harokopio University’s Department, highlighted the two sides to the childhood obesity challenge: both decreasing calorie intake and encouraging more active lifestyles. The professor highlighted that a preference amongst children towards sweet, high-energy foods is natural and must be expected, and believes best practice actions for reducing calorie intake lie in good modeling - as “children tend to observe and copy behaviors from the people they admire” - and ensuring healthier food choices are tasty and appealing. For example, adding olive oil to broccoli, making it more energy-dense and more likely for a child to eat it.

The room agreed with his perspective that tackling the childhood obesity problem is not about “fixing children” but rather addressing the environment in which they live, learn and play.  As such, the European Commission’s Deputy Head of Cabinet of Commissioner Navracsics, Patricia Reilly, and Head of Cabinet of Commissioner Andriukaitis, Arunas Vinciunas, highlighted numerous initiatives aimed at increasing activity across all levels of European society and specifically the progress being made through the EU Action Plan on Childhood Obesity.

The need to support parents and care-givers came through clearly in the discussion, with Patricia Reilly highlighting the importance of encouraging people to reward children with experiences rather than sweet treats. Adding to a discussion on portion sizes, Professor Manios described how the high-levels of childhood obesity in Greece are not necessarily due to sugar, but also a lack of parental understanding of suitable portion sizes for their children, even for perceived healthy foods.

Director General of UNESDA, Sigrid Ligné, emphasized the importance of promoting a healthy balanced diet and boosting incentives for interventions that are shown to work, citing results from the McKinsey Global Institute Obesity report showing that reformulation and smaller portions are the two most effective obesity interventions. The industry’s efforts to reduce sugar through reformulations, support portion control, and smaller packaging were all discussed as interventions that can make positive progress in addressing society’s obesity challenge.  UNESDA last year expanded its long-standing schools policy on responsible marketing that will see the industry stop sales of added sugar soft drinks in all secondary schools from the end of 2018, a pledge that is anticipated to span more than 50 million students in more than 40,000 schools across the EU. This furthers a 2006 commitment the European soft drinks industry made, since when there have been no sales of soft drinks from primary schools across the EU.  In support of responsible marketing, the soft drinks industry has also pledged to never advertise to an audience of children under 12 across any media and ensure a commercial-free environment in schools.