Government’s voluntary sugar targets ‘not working’

By Gwen Ridler

- Last updated on GMT

Food firms have yet to hit the 20% reduction in sugar in most categories, despite strong progress in soft drinks, dairy and breakfast cereals
Food firms have yet to hit the 20% reduction in sugar in most categories, despite strong progress in soft drinks, dairy and breakfast cereals

Related tags Sugar Ingredients

Voluntary systems to reduce sugar in food are not working, as evidenced by Public Health England’s (PHE’s) latest progress report, according to pressure group Action on Sugar.

Now in its third year, the annual report​ reviews industry action to reduce sugar levels in products that contribute most to children’s sugar intakes.

In 2016, the food and hospitality industries were challenged by government to reduce sugar by 20% in foods that contribute most to children’s sugar consumption, as part of efforts to tackle obesity.

Highlights in this year’s report included a 13% sugar reduction in branded breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fromage frais from 2015–2019. Average sugar reduction across all food categories was 3% during the same period.

Most retailer and manufacturer branded drinks have reduced sugar levels by at least 10% already with pre-packed sweetened milk-based drinks reducing sugar by more than a fifth (22%).

The report claimed the Soft Drinks Industry Levy had led to average sugar levels in drinks subject to the levy falling by 44% between 2015 and 2019 for retailers and manufacturers.

Chocolate sales up

However, sugar levels in chocolate and sweet confectionery remained largely unchanged, PHE stated, and sales of such products had increased between 16% and 17% respectively from 2015 to 2019.

In out-of-home settings, the report registered virtually no change in average simple sugar content of products overall. The largest sugar decreases in the sector per 100g of product were 17.1% for breakfast cereals, 6.8% for cakes and 3.9% for biscuits. However, there had been an overall reduction of 9.7% in average calories per portion in the sector from 394 kcals in 2017 to 355 kcals in 2019.

PHE’s report still includes minimal data on takeaways.

Despite solid progress being made, the latest report shows few main food or drink categories have achieved the 20% sugar reduction PHE called for. The only exceptions being soft drinks, as already mentioned, and pre-packed milk-based drinks, where there has been a -22.1% reduction in sugar.

PHE dials back calorie reduction targets

Last month, PHE dialled back the ‘unrealistic’ targets​ in its voluntary calorie reduction guidelines for the whole food industry, after pushback from the sector.

Graham MacGregor CBE, chairman of Action on Sugar and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said the results made it clear that the voluntary sugar reduction programme was not working.

“Food and drink companies that want to do the right thing are crying out for a level playing field, which can only be achieved by setting mandatory targets for calorie and sugar reduction,”​ said MacGregor.

“The soft drinks levy has shown that this approach is both best for business, and best for everyone’s health, including people from more disadvantaged groups.”

While MacGregor acknowledged that attention had been focused on the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, he urged the Government to put the same level of care and attention in to curbing the source of the ‘pandemics’ of obesity, Type 2 Diabetes and tooth decay.

Calls for compulsory targets  

“It’s imperative that whichever organisation takes over from Public Health England, they implement comprehensive and compulsory reformulation targets across the whole of the food and drink industry to gradually reduce the amount of sugar and excess calories in food and drink​,” he added.

Commenting on PHE’s latest report, Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “Too much sugar is bad for our health and most of us are consuming more than we need, often without realising it.

“We’ve continued to see some progress in reducing sugar in a number of everyday food and drink products and this shows that success is possible through reformulation.

“Yet, overall progress remains too slow. Faster and more robust action is needed to help us consume less sugar, which will help us become healthier and lower the economic burden of obesity and preventable pressure on the NHS.”

COVID-19 highlights obesity

Public health minister Jo Churchill said the COVID-19 pandemic had highlighted the issue of UK obesity and Government plans to further tackle the issue.

“Our recent announcement of the obesity strategy includes world-leading measures, such as a TV watershed for advertising food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar, and consulting on how we can introduce a ban online,” ​said Churchill.

“If more action is needed to support individuals to lead a healthy life, we will go further to help them.”

Smoothies and milk-based drinks

PHE reported sugar reduction progress for the first time for unsweetened juices, including smoothies and sweetened milk-based drinks, such as milkshakes. These were added to the voluntary programme, in 2018, on the basis that they could contribute significantly to children’s sugar and calorie consumption. A 20% sugar reduction target was set for these products with a 2021 deadline.

Alongside the -22.1% reduction in sugar for pre-packed milk-based drinks a -13.4% reduction was reported for pre-packed fermented (yoghurt) drinks.

Commenting on the dairy industry’s progress towards the sugar reduction targets, Dairy UK chief executive Judith Bryans said the results were a testament to the dedication of processors in the sector.

“In particular, the progress made in the milk-based drinks category is incredibly impressive. It shows the willingness and ambition of industry to reformulate their products, working together with PHE.

“We look forward to working with policy makers to build on these strong results and hope that the spirit of collaboration to achieve policy outcomes can continue.​  

Breakfast cereal progress

Gharry Eccles, vice president UK & Oceania, Cereal Partners Worldwide, highlighted the work by the cereal industry to reformulate its products. He highlighted Cereal Partners UK's 20.6% sugar reduction in its products since 2010.

“It’s pleasing to see that, for the second year running, the breakfast cereal category has been called out by PHE as one of two specific product categories that has shown the greatest progress when it comes to sugar reduction,” ​said Eccles.

“For us, a key achievement for us has been reformulating Shreddies Original, resulting in the sugar content reducing from 14.9g to 12.5g sugar per 100g. Meanwhile, in 2019 we used 653m less teaspoons (2,614 tonnes) of sugar, and 315m more (16g) servings (5042 tonnes) of whole grains across our entire brand portfolio compared to 2003.

The full report can be found here.

FDF response to sugar report

Food and Drink Federation (FDF) chief operating officer Tim Rycroft said the report was evidence of the work being done by manufacturers to reformulate their products, with the dairy industry in particular making great strides in slashing the sugar in their products. 

​As expected, we continue to see varying results in food due to the many different roles sugar can play in food and how acceptable changes are to our shoppers and consumers,​ said Rycroft.

““FDF have long said that PHE’s sugar reduction guidelines and timeframes are ambitious and won’t be met across all categories. The report’s data is from 2019 and therefore it is not reflective of the products on the market currently where further progress may have been made. As PHE have themselves pointed out, reformulation takes time – it can't happen overnight.”

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