Blog: Beyond cakegate: Why we need to consider the impact of our environment more seriously

Blog: Beyond cakegate: Why we need to consider the impact of our environment more seriously

Cake and other baked treats in the workplace have been a staple for birthdays and other occasions for many years. However, one of the country’s leading scientists has highlighted office cake culture as an unhelpful factor when it comes to making healthier choices. These comments have led to a social media storm attracting lots of scrutiny from a range of sectors including the public and dubbed ‘cakegate’. In this blog, we attempt to unpick some of the misleading headlines that have been circulating on the story and highlight the key message that appears to have been missed in this coverage.

Last week The Times published an interview with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) Chair and Professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford, Susan Jebb.

Speaking in her capacity as Professor and member of the Times Health Commission, key messages in the interview included:

  • Frustration at the government’s delay to advertising and marketing restrictions, which are now due to come into effect in 2025 (3 years later than planned).
  • The need for more doctors and healthcare practitioners to broach the topic of weight with patients.
  • We underestimate the role of the environment in influencing behaviours – in today’s society, with are faced with many cues to consume less healthy food and drink, including workplaces. It’s not enough to rely on the “willpower” of individuals to resist these cues which surround us.
  • Highlighting how cultural changes in tobacco use and tobacco control were influenced as a direct result of the environment changing to support individuals to quit. A range of legislative measures were brought in to restrict smoking in public places, including limits on the advertising and marketing of cigarettes and increased cost. Jebb argues that we need to take a similar approach with less healthy food.

However, the interview has been used to create misleading headlines which largely miss the key point Professor Jebb was trying to make.

  • “Office cake culture is a health hazard, warns food regulator” (The Times)
  • “Employees told they shouldn’t bring cake to the office” (The Independent)
  • “Cake in the office is as harmful as secondhand smoke, U.K. food official says” (The Washington Post)
  • “Top ‘food watchdog’ compares bringing cake into an office to smoking” (New York Post)

The comments also prompted a YouGov poll which found that 3/4 of adults think it is acceptable to bring cake into the office[i].

The Prime Minister’s office also responded with the following:

“The Prime Minister believes that personal choice should be baked into our approach.

‘We want to encourage healthy lifestyles and are taking action to tackle obesity, which has cost the NHS £6billion annually.

‘However, the way to deal with this issue is not to stop people from occasionally bringing in treats for their co-workers.”

A 2020 National Audit Office report[ii] suggests that the government has had limited success on reducing the prevalence of children living with obesity, and the inequality gap between the most and least deprived is actually getting worse. Furthermore, the government have recently rowed back on promises made to reduce pervasive marketing of HFSS food and drink that would address the key point Professor Jebb was making in her interview – by improving our environment to make healthier choices, easier.

Our take on ‘cakegate’:
  • Office cake culture has been used as an example to illustrate how settings such as the workplace can shape our choices. If cake is available, we are more likely to choose to eat it. Making small shifts and changes to practice can lead to a more supportive workplace culture that promotes health and wellbeing.
  • As a society we underestimate the role of environmental factors as key drivers of obesity. The narrative associated with ‘personal responsibility’ shifts the focus the role of the environment plays in shaping our decisions not only in terms of what we eat, but other behaviours such as physical activity, alcohol, tobacco and drug use, gambling and more.
  • Our ‘choices’ are compromised by endless cues to consume less healthy food and drink. This could include cake being brought into the office regularly, in addition to further barriers – such as meal deals on less healthy food and drink, exposure to advertising for less healthy food and drink options across travel networks and other forms of media.
  • Jebb’s point is not about stopping cake being consumed in the office. It’s about recognising how our food environments can make it harder to eat healthily. It’s about framing solutions to reducing overweight and obesity around us as a society and moving away from placing all the responsibility at the door of the individual.




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