Stemming the tide of junk food

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Dev Sharma at BiteBack Youth Summit
Dev Sharma speaking at BiteBack 2030's Youth Summit in Jamie Oliver HQ

Hi. My name is Dev Sharma. I’m 17, I live in Leicester and I am Co-Chair of the Bite Back 2030 National Youth Board.

Bite Back is a youth-led movement campaigning to improve child health in the United Kingdom, and transform a food system that is rigged against us. I led BiteBack's campaign to ban junk food advertising online – which was highlighted in the Queen's speech.

I started campaigning with BiteBack because I was tired. Tired of profits being put before my generation's health. Young people already face hurdles to just getting a good job, going to university, or climbing the social ladder. It angered me how these inequalities are exacerbated when you input food into the equation. Young people in disadvantaged communities are twice as likely to develop obesity and more likely to die 10 years younger than people in more affluent areas, purely based on the food they eat.

This is when I realised that my generation's unequal access to food is a rights-based issue and I knew I couldn't stay silent.

I feel bombarded with junk food everywhere I go, from adverts on my phone and across to my high street, to unhealthy options at my school canteen. Not only that, but I’m pretty sure it’s getting worse.

There’s no denying that misleading health claims and confusing nutritional information dominate many products found on supermarket shelves – just think about breakfast cereals which say they’re high in vitamins, but don’t tell you that they’re stuffed with sugar! Rather than being clear about what these products are made from, clever marketing tactics are leading young people to believe food is ‘healthy’ when in fact, that’s not always the case. Big food businesses are manipulating us into thinking their products are healthy — when really, they’re often packed with fat, sugar and salt.

Advertising works, otherwise, why would junk food companies spend billions on it? This advertising is manipulating young people like me to crave more, pester our parents more, buy more, and inevitably eat more unhealthy food. This is feeding into a larger health catastrophe that will be detrimental to our generations’ future chances! We know an unhealthy diet is linked with child obesity, type 2 diabetes, tooth decay, poor performance at school, bullying, mental health problems and much more, and that’s why it is so much more important than ever to collectively combine our efforts and speak up for children's health.

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Dev Sharma on BBC Newsnight
Dev speaking on BBC Newsnight about equal access to healthy food

At the end of last year, we published our “Don’t Hide What’s Inside” report and the findings were shocking. Half of teens buy products based on the health and nutrition claims on the packaging, yet 57% of products are so high in fat, sugar and salt that they would receive a red traffic light label.

We looked at the real ingredients of 500 products commonly consumed by teenagers, with health and nutrition claims in their marketing. Over half are high in either salt, saturated fat or sugar, and would get a red traffic light label. Smoothies, cereal bars and yoghurts were amongst the worst offenders. These products’ marketing tactics appear to be working, with 1 in 2 saying they are influenced by health claims on products and 73% of teens believing they are eating healthily.

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DHWI

We’re fed up with being deliberately exploited by big food companies, so in June this year, Bite Back’s brilliant young campaigners took action and launched “müd” –  a ‘healthy’ snack bar inspired by the misleading health claims used by companies such as Kelloggs. There was just one catch: our bar was made of 100%, all-natural mud.

We jokingly claimed that our “müd” bars were high in fibre, low in fat, and a great source of minerals, and took a year's supply to the Kelloggs factory in Manchester. It sounds funny, but we wanted to make a serious point, that 8 in 10 young people are led to believe cereal bars are healthy, but 81 percent of cereal bars would get a red traffic light label.

Watch our launch video to find out more...

Ultimately, it should be easy for all young people to be healthy, no matter where they live, but sadly that’s just not the case, partly due to many misleading nutrition claims and ingredient ‘shout-outs’ health-washing our supermarket aisles. At Bite Back we want food and drink brands to be upfront and honest about the things they put inside their products. Businesses can be part of the change we want to see across the food system, and should work with young people, like those of us at Bite Back 2030, to understand their role in protecting our health, and the futures of millions of children. 

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