On Tesco’s Late Equaliser and the Value of Bite-Sized Chunks

I was delighted to hear from Tesco yesterday in response to my campaign to change the labelling of breakfast cereals in supermarkets. Three letters and a few tweets have finally borne fruit, and Tesco are following Sainsbury’s lead by removing the misleading signs from all their stores. If you have not been following my campaign against the concept of “Children’s Cereals” then you can follow the story in the blog here, here and here. I was even more pleased when I had cause to visit my local Sainsbury’s later that day to find that their signs have indeed disappeared as promised.

Cereals for all – Tesco are removing the sign denoting children’s cereals

It is comforting to know that I will now be able to venture into both stores without having my blood pressure challenged in the cereals section, but this is only a small part of a wider public debate on how we treat our children: If we believe that children will only eat food that is coated in sugar or high in saturated fat, then the chances are that they will grow up wanting to eat food that is coated in sugar or high in saturated fat. It is a debate that we must keep in the public domain, and a war that must be waged on many fronts.

It struck me that there is a parallel with many seemingly insurmountable health problems here, and that this has been a helpful lesson in the immense value of breaking down problems into bite-sized chunks. My overwhelming problem is the challenge society faces with the frightening increase in childhood obesity – surely it is impossible for me to impact this and it seems ridiculous to try. Even if I break it down to the role of the supermarkets and how food is marketed to children I am still defeated into a state of inactivity, believing I cannot succeed. Reduce it further to the issue of two small signs in the cereal aisle and I am starting to think about action – still not confident that I will succeed, but willing to give it a go. And it turns out that it was possible after all. I haven’t changed the world, my problem has not gone away, but I have changed something, and perhaps I can now change something else.

So too with health problems. Maybe I feel crushed by my failure to lose weight, cannot consider how to face the week without the comfort of a bottle of wine or am overwhelmed by anxiety every time I consider venturing from my home. The scale of my problem is so great that my spirit is broken from the start, and I tolerate the status quo for months, even years, because I cannot even imagine any other way. The way forward has to be to imagine a different future, look at the problem in a new light and find a bite-sized chunk that I know I can break off, where I have some confidence that in a small way I can succeed.

So with weight loss – to set the challenge of losing a certain amount of weight in a set time often sets us up to failure – but perhaps it is not so unrealistic to aim to make one small change: maybe the biscuit with your coffee becomes an apple, maybe three potatoes becomes two, or the lift is exchanged for the stairs. The lover of wine might not be able to contemplate cutting down to recommended limits just yet, but perhaps they can consider having one day a week that is alcohol free; and the person with anxiety may not be ready to book a holiday to Venice, but could they find a friend to help them and venture somewhere new just a little outside their comfort zone?

When we break things down it is vital that we are careful how we measure our success. If I were to measure my campaign against the level of childhood obesity in the UK I would clearly see no impact at all and might berate myself for trying. In the same way, if you challenge yourself to change a biscuit to an apple, assess your success on just that – have you kept your promise to yourself and are you eating fewer biscuits? It is unfair to measure your success only in terms of the bathroom scales – that will come in time, but we need minor victories along the way to win the war. Success is empowering, and we need to practise it if we are to overcome the more intransigent problems, both in our own health and in society.

Sainsbury’s 1 Tesco 0 – Still Time for an Equaliser

I can’t say that it comes naturally to me to sing the praises of a major corporation, but here goes: SAINSBURY’S: THANK YOU FOR LISTENING! WELL PLAYED!

Unaccustomed as I am to writing letters of complaint, it was with high enthusiasm but low expectations that I set out to write to two leading supermarkets about their unneccessary categorisation of cereal products into those suitable for children and those for adults. The unhelpful message to children and parents that the sugary and chocolately varieties of cereal are the only ones a child can be expected to eat has been my obvious concern. I have charted the progress of my single-handed campaign in this blog here and here, and am delighted to report an update:

On Monday I received a letter from the Head Office at Sainsbury’s saying that they had reviewed the matter and agreed with me – as such they are taking down all the signs that distinguish adult and children’s cereals! I have been skipping about for the last two days with my faith restored that one person can make a difference, common sense can be listened to, and when a company says it is committed to promoting health it is not all just hot air! I’ll say it again: Thank you Sainsbury’s!

The letter advises me that the signs should all be gone by the end of July 2012, and if I see any after that date then to please let the store manager know, or contact head office again and they will take action – so look out for them disappearing and please leave a comment here if you see one in August!

Now, come on Tesco – time to raise your game and respond in kind! There is still time for that equaliser! I’ve been reading how instantly Twitter can get a response from a the PR department of major companies these days, so a little tweet might be in order to nudge Sainsbury’s rivals into action!

It’s surprising how exhilarating it is to feel you have made a difference (I know this is a small matter really, and hardly item number one in the public agenda, but please don’t deny me my little moment of triumph!) I might even get used to this complaining thing – I think there are more letters in me. Hey, then I could graduate from being a cereal protester to become a serial protester!

Sainsbury’s Action Letter The positive response from Sainsbury’s

An Englishman Stirred – the False Dichotomy of “Children’s” and “Adult’s” Cereals

I doubt I will be accused of being overly hasty in my campaign against the labelling of cereal products by supermarkets, but that does not mean that my quest has faltered, nor has my zeal lost its edge. I first blogged on this subject at the end of December, and that it has taken me 4 months to plot my second move is something I like to put down to an English predilection for a measured, well-considered response, respect for the other side to give them ample time to deliver their riposte – oh and being a full-time GP with a busy life might have something to do with it.

Nevertheless, I promised to report back the response of the giants in the supermarket world to my humble request to remove the label “Children’s” from its close attachment to certain types of sugary, chocolatey cereals. This on the seemingly reasonable grounds that separating cereals into those suitable for children, and those suitable for adults, is a false dichotomy that sends completely the wrong health message in these times of increasing obesity.

I sent letters to the local managers of both Tesco and Sainsbury’s and am disappointed to say that they scored 0-0 in their response – not a word or a peep or even an automated acknowledgement from either of them. Customer service is not what it used to be! The regional Customer Services offices at least wrote back, and I attach a scanned copy of their letters. Sainsbury’s were non-committal and advised me that they will be considering my comments at their next marketing team meeting – but they have not committed to responding again after this meeting and I am not holding my breath. Tesco gave a fuller report – full of PR babble that had little bearing to my concern. They commented on problems with space on the shelves and not wanting to take anything away from children, when all I am concerned about is the sign coming down from the ceiling. Maybe my letter was confusing and I need to restate my case – or perhaps they prefer not to understand and would rather waffle away my objection than seriously consider it.

Let me be clear. I have no problem with the fact that cereal companies manufacture sugar-coated products – some regulation here to try to keep them healthier is important, but freedom to buy unhealthy food if you so choose is necessary in a liberal democracy. I have no issue with supermarkets stocking them and giving them ample self space. Unlike cigarettes, I have no wish to see them in plain packaging or behind protective screens – they are not that bad for you after all. However, why, oh why, oh why do the supermarkets feel the need to separate them into “Adult” and “Children” categories? Granted, you won’t want to give hard-to-chew lumps to a 7 month old baby, and may prefer to avoid nuts altogether in the under 3’s, but with these minor exceptions there is no reason why an adult should not choose Frosties for breakfast, or a child prefer Shredded Wheat – or am I missing some vital nutritional understanding here?

So I shall write again, and enclose photographic evidence this time to make my point clearer. And my MP happens to be Anne Milton, Health Minister – I think a letter to her might not go amiss either. Once more into the breach…

Sainsbury’s Letter of Reply

Tesco’s Letter of Reply Page 1

Tesco’s Letter of Reply Page 2

Letter to Anne Milton MP

Letter to Tesco

Letter to Sainsbury’s

A Small Contribution to the Year of Protest

Time Magazine recently announced their Person of the Year 2011. Following on from previous notables such as Mark Zuckerberg and Barack Obama, this year the award has been given to The Protester – the nameless man or woman who has taken to the streets in their tens of thousands in 2011 and brought about major change in so many parts of the world – the Arab Spring being the most notable example, but austerity marches in Greece, the protesters bedding in for winter outside St Paul’s, and those taking to the streets in Moscow (ironically, protesting against the 2007 winner of this award, Vladimir Putin – how times change!) have added their noteworthy voices to the rise of the people in this turbulent year.

Well, I would like to add my own small voice to the crowd, and have decided to draw the battle lines for my own miniature protest. There is a joke that when an Englishman is really angry about something he nearly writes a letter to complain about it – well, I have actually gone so far as to write a letter – in fact four letters – so there!

Not that I am that angry, but I did feel challenged recently that if I am going to complain about something on this blog, then I should also try to do something about it. And the object of my frustration? The rightful target of my wrath? Not, I am afraid, rampant government corruption, nor am I remotely newsworthy enough for someone to consider hacking into my telephone, nor is it anger at the actions of bankers, nor the foolish words of Jeremy Clarkson. No, what has motivated me to put pen to paper is nothing more or less than breakfast cereals.

I love breakfast cereals. I encourage young parents to make their baby into “a Weetabix baby” (sorry to display the typical frankness of a doctor, but there really is no better way to ensure a lifetime without constipation!), I am heartened by the idea of young people heading off to school equipped with the energy-giving properties of a good breakfast, and live in hope that families might sit down together and make this important event a social occasion that transcends the usual grunts and groans of an early morning. What I hate, however, is the concept of ‘children’s breakfast cereals’. I know that companies market cereals for children, and I am not naive enough to think that they should be banned from doing so, but for supermarkets to label them as ‘children’s cereals’ implies that children are incapable of eating anything that is not sugar-coated or covered in transfats.

This is small beer compared with the global crises we have been faced with in 2011 – but the more I think about it, the more fundamental it seems to be. It is at the heart of how we treat our children. If we believe that they are fussy, untrainable creatures that will only respond to the instant gratification that sugar, chocolate, television and video games can provide, then we can only expect one thing – they will become fussy, untrainable creatures that will only respond to the instant gratification that sugar, chocolate, television and video games can provide. We will find ourselves avoiding the cereal aisle altogether because we can’t imagine how we could walk past some chocolate-covered offering without either putting it in the trolley or having an intolerable tantrum. I have ranted on this subject before in a post on Fussy Eating, which also received some comments that are well worth reading.

Children are not demanding monsters who must be appeased, but intelligent, empathic individuals who look to adults for supportive guidance as to what is right and what is wrong, and thrive in an environment that is liberated, but with clearly defined, appropriate boundaries. Teaching them how to distinguish what should be the staple of a healthy life-long diet, and what is an enjoyable occasional treat, is an important part of their development that will equip them well for the rest of their lives. Most parents believe this, and do an excellent job in bringing it about – but we could do with all the help we can get, as it is not always easy!

To walk down a cereal aisle in your local supermarket, and find a section clearly marked as ‘Children’s Cereals’ and another ‘Adult Cereals’ (as is the case in the Guildford branch of Sainsbury’s. although not, I am glad to say, their Godalming branch) is really not helpful. Apart from the advice that nuts are best avoided in children under three years of age, there is no cereal that is not suitable for children. For as long as products are labelled in this way, new parents will assume it is the norm and be susceptible to this marketing lie, and children will absorb the message that there is something wrong with cereal if it is not coated with sugar or chocolate.

And so to the campaign! I have written letters to the Guildford branch of Tesco (who are just as culpable as their rivals) and Sainsbury’s (both attached below), as well as the central office of both stores. I will keep an eye on other stores as I visit them, and will send more letters accordingly. If anyone would like to join me in this small venture I would be delighted to have your support, and I will post any response to my letters in this blog. Wish me luck in this year of protest! Onwards into 2012!

Tesco Letter

Sainsbury’s Letter

Tesco Central Office Letter

Sainsbury’s Central Office Letter

The Sunshine Vitamin

I was fortunate enough over Easter to be able to spend three weeks in Australia. I’m sure I’m not the only one who spends much of their time abroad noticing every tiny difference to life at home – yes the water really does flow anticlockwise down the plughole! – perhaps not everyone, though, would be quite so interested in the finer details on the side of a packet of Kellogg’s corn flakes. It might seem a bit sad to find my inspiration from a table marked Nutrition Information, but it does tell an interesting story if you care to look.

My UK packet of Corn Flakes proudly boasts to be The Sunshine Breakfast – a source of Vitamin D, the only vitamin that is made in our skin by the action of sunlight. It is not an idle boast, as there is only one other packet of cereal among the extensive range in my kitchen cupboard that contains Vitamin D, and that is also made by Kellogg’s (it’s Bran Flakes and, interestingly, it contains the same amount of Vitamin D as Corn Flakes, but makes no comment about this other than in the small print). It seems that Kellogg’s are the only cereal company to have been keeping an eye on the medical journals – because Vitamin D is the in thing in medical research at the moment.

When the British Medical Journal arrives on my doorstep every week, there is at least a 50/50 chance that there will be an article on Vitamin D. We’ve  known since the 1920’s how important Vitamin D is in bone formation – it is the key vitamin in the metabolism of calcium and so vital for making good bones – but we are only just learning about what else it might do. People with adequate Vitamin D levels live longer than those without – we don’t know why this might be, but it seems to be a good thing to have enough of it. There are suggestions that it may reduce the risk of cancer, and that deficiency could be linked to the development of multiple sclerosis. It may have a role in our immune system (could it explain part of the reason why influenza is more common in the winter when Vitamin D levels are lower?) and it seems that deficiency is linked with a higher risk of heart disease and circulatory problems. Much of this is uncertain, but one thing is clear – and that is that many of us in the United Kingdom are short of this important vitamin – perhaps as many as 2 out of every 3 people aged over 65, a fair few younger people and almost everyone in a nursing home are deficient in Vitamin D.

So what about Australia? Well Kellogg’s clearly think the Sunshine Breakfast is not such a marketing winner Down Under – no bold claims on the packet, and no Vitamin D in the packet. Who can blame them? Sunshine is not exactly in short supply in that part of the world. But maybe they need it more than they think? The problem in this modern world is that much medical advice is mutually exclusive. For instance, if you want strong bones then you should drink plenty of milk as it’s the best source of calcium, but if you want a healthy heart then you need to avoid dairy and all its bad cholesterol – how can you do both? And so with sunshine. To avoid skin cancer it’s so important to cover up and cream up, but is this leading to a generation growing up without enough Vitamin D? Nowhere has this message got through more effectively than the melanoma centre of the world – Australia – and what an important public health message to get through!

So what should we advise our Antipodean friends? Well they probably won’t solve this quandary by importing British Corn Flakes. Noble as it is to put Vitamin D into their cereals, the amount of Vitamin D in a typical bowl of Corn Flakes is probably the equivalent of only a few seconds of exposure to Noon-Time sun. The answer, as it so often is, has to be moderation. Get some exposure to the sun every day that you can – about 15 minutes of full sun is plenty to get a good daily top-up if you have your arms and legs on show – but cover or cream up after that, and don’t ever get burnt. And in the UK now is the time to get going – our British sun is too weak from October to April to do much good, so we have to make the most of our summer!