A survey carried out by The Observer newspaper suggests that hospitals in the NHS are sending out a mixed message by stocking vending machines with unhealthy food and drinks.
According to the survey of hospital trusts in England, all of the 76 trusts who responded sold confectionary and salty snacks, while as many as half failed to offer plain dried or fresh fruit.
And of the 60 trusts that provided information related to soft drinks, only two – the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust and the Bolton NHS Foundation Trust – have restricted the availability of fizzy drinks to diet versions.
It should be said in mitigation that diet fizzy drinks have come under as much criticism as their full sugar equivalents, with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame being linked with a wide variety of health problems.
Whether diet fizzy drinks would actually be healthier than full sugar variants is debatable. What could be said is that water or some form of pure fruit juice would be a considerably superior option to any form of soda.
Hospitals have come under pressure to improve the quality of food on offer to patients and staff, as it has become increasingly clear that the nutritional value of food served in hospitals is sometimes negligible.
Only last month, Simon Stevens, chief executive of NHS England, called on hospitals to improve the quality of food being offered, and to serve healthy options in restaurants, cafes and vending machines.
The health regulator Nice has already advised that only 20 per cent of vending machine drinks should be sweetened by significant amounts of sugar.
Additionally, sweetened drinks should be sold in site is no greater than 330ml.
But Freedom of information requests issued by The Guardian indicate that most of us in the UK are in fact ignoring these regulations.
For example, vending machines at the Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust offer nineteen different varieties of sugary soft drinks or juice drinks and two flavoured milk-shake drinks.
Speaking on behalf of the National Obesity Forum, Tam Fry stated that hospitals needed to more reflect an ethos of healthy eating.
“They’re stoking up business for themselves; particularly with obesity and diabetes, you don’t want to see more of them [patients]; you want to see fewer. One of the ways to see more is to ply them with sugary drinks,” Fry opined.
Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at Oxford, suggested that pricing is also an issue.
“The problem is that the choice is biased in favour of the less healthy option by price, availability and portion size. Even the manufacturers say that if you take those bottles of sugary drinks it’s not one serving, it’s two – so why have we got 500ml bottles in vending machines, which are supposed to be about single-unit purchases?”
In May, 2014, it was reported that the UK is one of the most obese countries in Europe.
The UK has higher levels of obesity and overweight people than anywhere in western Europe except for Iceland and Malta according to the Global Burden of Disease study.