UK food fails to meet sugar reduction targets

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Food producers have fallen short of sugar reduction targets
Food producers have fallen short of sugar reduction targets
The UK food industry has failed to meet sugar reduction targets set by the government as part of its plans to curb childhood obesity.

In a report published today (22 May) by Public Health England (PHE), manufacturers and retailers achieved a 2% reduction in sugar against a 5% first-year target for the period August 2016–2017. This was assessed against a 2015 baseline.

PHE recognised that the targets were ambitious and that they represented an encouraging initial start for food firms.

While this did not meet ambitions to cut sugar, PHE said it recognised there were more reduction plans from the food industry in the pipeline, with some changes to products not captured in the data as they took effect after the first year cut-off point.

Of the ten categories of food monitored (see box below for the full list), the greatest reduction in sugar was observed in yogurts and fromage frais – a 6% cut in sugar per 100g. Puddings fared the worst, seeing an increase of 1% in the amount of sugar found in these products.

PHE said that limitations in its data meant it was unable to report on the progress made in the cakes and morning goods categories. This was because a large proportion of products had only estimated nutrition information, making it difficult to measure the sugar per 100g.

Sugar in soft drinks

Sugar reduction targets for juice- and milk-based drinks

By mid-2021, the drinks industry is encouraged to:

  • Reduce sugar in juice-based drinks (excluding single juice) by 5%;
  • Cap all juice-based drinks (including blended juices, smoothies and single juices) likely to be consumed in one go to 150 calories; and
  • Reduce sugar in milk- (and milk substitute-) based drinks by 20% and cap products likely to be consumed in one go to 300 calories.

The PHE also found an 11% reduction in sugar in soft drinks as a result of the Government’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy. It also published new guidelines for the drinks industry to reduce the amount of sugar children consumed through juice and milk based drinks (see box to the right).

Commenting on the results, PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie said: “We have seen some of the food industry make good progress, and they should be commended for this. We also know that further progress is in the pipeline.

“However, tackling the obesity crisis needs the whole food industry to step up, in particular those businesses that have as yet taken little or no action.”

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said it was encouraged by today’s results in highlighting the work being done by the industry to reformulate.

However, FDF director of corporate affairs Tim Rycroft stressed that reformulation took time and results for such ambitious targets would not appear overnight.

“Sugar reduction has considerable technical challenges – sugar plays a variety of roles beyond sweetness in food including colour, texture and consistency,” ​said Rycroft.

‘The guidelines are ambitious’

“It is for these reasons that we have long said that the guidelines are ambitious and will not be met across all categories or in the timescale outlined.”

Rycroft said that food and drink manufacturers were fully engaged with the programme. He appreciated that the PHE recognised that this was an early assessment of progress and that these were the results of just the first year of a four-year programme.

“This is a long-term commitment. Companies need to time to reformulate their products and any restrictions which would prevent them from communicating these changes effectively with adult consumers would undermine the work they are currently engaged in,”​ he added.

Pressure group Action on Sugar (AOS) welcomed the PHE’s first assessment, but said it was evident that more could be done – particularly on biscuits, chocolate confectionery, puddings and products sold in the out-of-home sector.

AOS nutritionist Kawther Hashem said: “It’s unfair and ridiculous that the out-of-home sector products are not being reformulated to the same extent. Much stricter measures need to be in place to ensure progress is being made by the food industry and that the 20% sugar reduction target is met."

The next progress report on the sugar reduction programme is due in spring 2019.

Meanwhile, the FDF’s members have reduced the amount of sugar​ and salt in an average consumer’s basket of shopping over the past five years, according to a new report.

Sugar reduction by the UK food industry

Product category

Sugar per 100g (% change)



Breakfast cereals


Chocolate confectionery


Ice cream, lollies and sorbets




Sweet spreads and sauces


Sweet confectionery


Yogurt and fromage frais


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