War on child obesity puts soft drinks back in focus

By Noli Dinkovski contact

- Last updated on GMT

Sugary soft drinks make up 10% of the sugar in children’s diets
Sugary soft drinks make up 10% of the sugar in children’s diets
Sugary soft drinks face further scrutiny after Public Health England (PHE) made them the focus of its latest drive to combat child obesity.

The health body is ramping up its Change4Life campaign after claiming children in England have consumed more than a year’s worth of sugar in less than six months.

Children in England have already exceeded their maximum recommended intake of sugar for the year and are on track to consume the equivalent of around 4,800 cubes of sugar each in 2018, PHE said.

Through Change4Life, PHE is urging parents to make simple changes, as sugary soft drinks remained one of the main sources of sugar – more than ice cream and puddings combined. PHE’s data is based on the latest National Diet and Nutrition Survey data, published in March.

In April, a Soft Drinks Industry Levy was imposed on all soft drinks (excluding fruit juices and milk-based drinks) containing at least 5g per 100ml of sugar.

Soft drink producers geared up for the levy by reformulating many of their leading brands. Sugar intake from soft drinks has decreased by 18.7% since 2013 – almost five times as much as other categories – according to Kantar Worldpanel.

Swap sugary drinks for plain water

Change4Life is urging parents to swap sugary drinks for plain water, lower fat plain milks, sugar-free or no-added-sugar drinks.

Fruit juice with no added sugar can be a healthier alternative to soft drinks, but still contributed a significant amount of sugar, therefore, should be limited to a combined total of 150ml per day, PHE said.

The campaign is also calling for a cutback on sugary snacks by swapping cakes, biscuits, chocolate and sweets for fruit, plain rice cakes, toast, fruit teacakes, malted loaf or bagels with lower-fat spread.

Children aged four to 10 years should have no more than the equivalent of five to six cubes of sugar a day, but are consuming on average 13 cubes, said PHE chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone.

“We’re barely halfway through the year and already children have consumed far more sugar than is healthy – it’s no surprise this is contributing to an obesity crisis,”​ Tedstone explained.

‘No-added-sugar alternatives’

“Swapping to lower- or no-added-sugar alternatives is something all parents can work towards.”

PHE is working with the food industry to cut 20% of sugar from the foods children consume most by 2020. Its sugar reduction guidelines for juice and milk-based drinks outside the scope of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy are to be achieved by mid 2021.

A spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said obesity posed a “huge public health challenge”​ in the UK, and food and drink companies were well aware of their role in addressing this issue.

“It is for this reason that FDF members have fully engaged with PHE’s sugar reduction programme – the results of the first year of which highlighted the recent reformulation work undertaken by industry,”​ the spokeswoman said.

“In fact, over the last five years, FDF members have reduced sugar content in the average basket by 12.1%.

“However, we also recognise that there is more work to be done. PHE’s sugar reduction programme, that FDF members are fully committed to, is only in its early stages – companies are working through technical challenges that come with sugar reduction and there is plenty more work in the pipeline.”

In March, PHE also set the food and drink industry a 20% calorie reduction target​ in food consumed across 13 product categories by 2024.

Sugar in children’s diet

Apart from fruit juice (11%), which counts as one of the recommended five-a-day portions of fruit or vegetables, the other main sources of sugar in children’s diets are:

  • Sugary soft drinks (including squashes, juice drinks, energy drinks, cola and other fizzy drinks) – 10%
  • Buns, cakes, pastries and fruit pies – 10%
  • Sugars, including table sugar, preserves and sweet spreads – 9%
  • Biscuits – 9%
  • Breakfast cereals – 8%
  • Chocolate confectionery – 7%
  • Sugar confectionery – 7%
  • Yogurt, fromage frais and other dairy desserts – 6%
  • Ice cream – 5%
  • Puddings – 4%

Source: National Diet and Nutrition Survey

Related topics: Obesity, Drinks, Legal

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