Rising obesity statistics make alarming reading for governments and for the drinks industry. While politicians look to improve the effectiveness of their policies in this area, writes Annette Farr, with all eyes on the raft of initiatives unveiled in the UK last week, the drinks industry is demonstrating its commitment to tackling the problems through product innovation.

The statistics remain alarming. Last week, analyst Datamonitor published its report, Commercial and Pipeline Perspectives: Obesity - Lack of Reimbursement Limits Market Potential, which states that the obesity epidemic is sweeping the globe.

The US is regarded as the most overweight nation in the western world, with one in three adults classified as clinically obese. But the UK is not far behind. By 2015, almost 16m Britons over the age of 20 are forecast to be obese - that's about the current population of the Netherlands.

As the Datamonitor report was published, the UK government unveiled a GBP372m (US$738m) multi-stranded strategy aimed at tackling rising obesity and helping people to lead healthier, more active lives. With the goal of making the UK the first leading nation to reverse the obesity trend, a five-pronged strategy has been launched under the auspices of the Health Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families:

• Promoting the healthy growth and development of children, including making cooking a compulsory part of the National Curriculum and a GBP75m marketing campaign to "support and empower" parents to make changes to their children's diets and increase levels of physical activity.

• The promotion of healthier food choices, which embraces simple but effective food labelling and not advertising unhealthy foods to children.
• Building physical activity into our lives, through the investment of GBP30m in "Healthy Towns" to encourage physical activity, and reducing the amount of time children spend in sedentary TV screen-based activities.

• Creating incentives for better health through payments, vouchers and other rewards to encourage individuals to lose weight, to eat more healthily and be consistently more physically active.
• Personalised advice and support.

For its part, the soft drink industry has been proactive in responding to health concerns associated with ever-expanding waistlines, diabetes, heart disease, some cancers. In recent years, there has been a raft of new low-, zero-calorie, sugar-free drinks as well as the emergence of a new category of functional drinks aimed specifically at consumers wanting to lose weight.

Starting from a very low base these satiety and weight management drinks are experiencing encouraging growth levels. According to Zenith International's 2007 Weight Management Report, West Europe is experiencing year-on-year growth of around 33%, and the US growth of 28%, although Japan is the largest market for these products and achieved strong double-digit growth in 2006.

Celsius, launched in the US in 2005, was one of the first calorie-burning drinks to come to market. The drink's claim is that it is "the first functional beverage product to launch with clinical proof of functionality". The company says three placebo-controlled, clinical studies have confirmed the claim that Celsius burns 100 calories per 12oz serving.

The coming year is likely to see a substantial increase in the number of satiety/weight loss drinks launched, incorporating a new wave of scientifically proven weight loss management ingredients.

One such drink is a skimmed milk fruit juice smoothie called Naturally Gorgeous from Naturally Drinks. It features Pinnothin, a natural ingredient produced by Lipid Nutrition. Pinnothin is derived from pine nut oil giving a combination of essential fats that help control hunger urges. The ingredient won the Slimming Ingredient Germany Award 2007.

"We launched the drinks at the very end of November 2007. Sales are good," says Naturally Drinks spokesperson Hannah Gutteridge. "We are the first company in the UK to use Pinnothin and whilst there is a fair amount of education to do, satiety is set to be one of this year's biggest trends so we are hopefully fortunate with our timing,"

It is not just the smaller niche companies who are bringing weight management drinks to market. In the US, a partnership between Coca-Cola and Nestlé led to the launch of Enviga, a carbonated green tea-based energy drink. Enviga's key ingredients are an antioxidant found in green tea called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), caffeine, and calcium. According to Coca-Cola, Enviga burns 60 to 100 calories per three 12oz servings.

However, this claim has caused controversy. The influential US Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has filed a lawsuit over company claims that Enviga acts as a calorie-burning and weight-loss product. Further, the CSPI is urging the Federal Trade Commission to take enforcement action against Coca-Cola and Nestlé for their deemed unlawful deceptive advertising.

Quite rightly weight loss claims have to be substantiated by proven scientific evidence. Labelling is going to be a key issue in the light of forthcoming European legislation (Regulation 1924/2006 on Nutrition and Health Claims made on Foods) due to become law in 2010.

Will the latest raft of government initiatives stall rising waistlines? To date government thinking and action has been disjointed, woolly and ineffective. The National Obesity Forum, established in the UK by medical practitioners in May 2000 to raise awareness of the impact obesity has on patients and the NHS, says that warnings were first issued in 1976 of a looming weight problem. Back then, obesity levels in the UK stood at 6% of men and 7% of women.

Prevention is better than cure. It is to be hoped that these latest measures will lead to a downturn and serious decline in obesity and overweight. After all, it's not rocket science: consume less high-calorie food and drink, and take more exercise.