Manufacturers set target to cut sugar 20% by 2020

By Matt Atherton

- Last updated on GMT

Public Health England challenged manufacturers to reduce their products' sugar content by 5% by August this year
Public Health England challenged manufacturers to reduce their products' sugar content by 5% by August this year

Related tags Nutrition

Public Health England (PHE) has targeted a 20% reduction in sugar in some everyday foods to reduce childhood obesity and the food and drink industry is “willing to take on the challenge”.

PHE advised the food industry on three ways to tackle sugar reduction in its report – Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20%​ – published today (March 30). Manufacturers could reformulate products to lower their sugar content, reduce portion size, and encourage shoppers to buy lower or no added sugar products, it said.

The government challenged the food industry to reduce sugar content by 5% by August 2017, and 20% by 2020. If targets were met, about 200,000t of sugar would be removed from the UK market every year by 2020, said PHE.

PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie said: “The UK has one of the most innovative food sectors in the world, and it’s in everyone’s best interests to ensure it remains a dynamic and thriving sector of our economy.

“The scale of our ambition to reduce sugar is unrivalled anywhere in the world, which means the UK food industry has a unique opportunity to innovate and show the rest of the world how it can be done.”

Recommended sugar limits

Food in nine different categories were given recommended sugar limits (see below).

“We can’t duck the fact a third of children are leaving primary school overweight or obese, and obesity generally is having a profound effect, not just on the costs for the health service, but on the overall health of the nation,”​ said Selbie.

“Our economy is affected as obesity can lead to long-term health problems that result in time off work.”

Commenting on PHE’s sugar guidelines, the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) – which represents the industry – said manufacturers were up for the challenge of meeting the targets, but it wouldn’t be easy.

FDF director general Ian Wright said: “Today’s report represents a constructive platform on which to build a world-leading programme of voluntary sugars reduction, right across food and drink. All parts of the food industry – manufacturers, retailers, takeaways, restaurants and cafés – need to step up.

“The guidelines are very stretching but manufacturers, for our part, are willing to take on the challenge.”

Overcome sugar reduction challenges

Manufacturers knew that their products had a “special place in people’s lives”​, and they were working hard to overcome sugar reduction challenges, Wright added.

But, PHE’s report was just one piece of the wider puzzle for improving health, he said.

“Obesity levels in the UK are unacceptably high. Physical inactivity is a factor, but for many the problem overwhelmingly is with excess calories in the diet,”​ said Wright.

Meanwhile, food and drink research company Leatherhead Food Research said sugar reduction was a complex issue, as sugar contributed a lot more to products than just taste. It has preservation qualities, and impacts texture, aeration, fermentation and visual appeal, it said.

Food manufacturers would need to consider ingredient interactions in a recipe to understand how sugar reduction would affect the finished product.

What they say about PHE’s guidelines

  • “The guidelines are very stretching but manufacturers, for our part, are willing to take on the challenge”

Ian Wright, FDF

  • “It is a positive step to finally have sugar reduction targets for these key food groups, to help people make healthier choices. We now need to see companies meeting these new guidelines and committing to more responsible promotion of foods that are high in sugar, fat and salt, especially those aimed at children”

Alex Neill, Which?

  • “We congratulate PHE’s tremendous achievement on setting coherent and achievable sugar reduction targets in such a short space of time. However, the missing factor in this report is how these targets will be enforced. If companies don’t comply, we need Theresa May to bring in tough measures to ensure compliance, and put public health first before the profits of the food industry”

Graham MacGregor, Action on Sugar

  • “The vast majority of pubs are small independent businesses. For those serving food there is a diverse approach to food preparation and provision and there is therefore typically no such thing as a standard meal. Pubs are already under considerable regulatory and financial pressure and we would be wary of over-regulation in this area.”

Brigid Simmonds, British Beer & Pub Association

  • “Reducing the sugar in foods is certainly one way to tackle obesity, but behaviours need to change as well. The British Dietetic Association would suggest that, whilst there are new tougher advertising guidelines on non-broadcasting media, this does not go far enough. The government needs to further restrict the advertising of high fat, sugar and salt foods before the 9pm watershed, and ban promotions on those same products.”

Sue Kellie, British Dietetic Association

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