UK pushes voluntary added sugar labelling scheme

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

© iStock/&#169stocksnapper
© iStock/&#169stocksnapper
The UK government has confirmed that it will introduce “clearer visual labelling” in relation to free sugars on packaged food and drinks - but it will be voluntary.

Having considered “several options”​ to make sugar content clearer, a voluntary scheme using “teaspoons of sugar or cubes”​ seems to be the favoured approach.

In its official response to a series of recommendations published by the Health Committee in a report on obesity, the government noted: “Current sugar labelling shows the total sugar content of foods but new maximum intake recommendations are based on the specific sugars that are easily over-consumed, not all sugars.

“Therefore we will develop clearer visual labelling on these specific sugars such as teaspoons of sugar or cubes to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink, in line with the government’s new sugar intake recommendations.”

Push back on proposals

The committee, which consists of MPs from across Parliament, also recommended a centrally-led reformulation programme to reduce sugar, as well as a parallel programme to cut calories and reduce fat.

The government noted that a sugar tax on soft drinks and a voluntary sugar reformulation scheme are both part of its new Childhood Obesity Strategy. There is no mention of fat, however.

A number of the group’s other proposals have also been rebutted. In their report, published back in November, the MPs also called for “tougher”​ controls on price promotions and marketing of unhealthy food and drink. Neither of these are part of the strategy, with the omissions heavily criticised by campaigners.

The government said: “Current restrictions on advertising in the UK are amongst the toughest in the world. We welcome the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) review of non-broadcast advertising to introduce new rules on advertising to children.”

A trial to determine the impact of promotional activity on purchasing behaviour and revenue sales is underway in hospitals, but the government seems reluctant to place controls on retailers. “Industry know their consumers want a healthier food and drink offer,”​ it noted.

Research in August​ by Which? showed that 53% of supermarket price promotions are for less healthy products. In Scotland more than half of consumers (53%) want to see an increase in promotions of healthier choices, said the consumer group.

Labelling laws

Labelling the sugar content in packaged foods will be compulsory from December this year under the European's regulation on food information to consumers (FIR). The laws will see nutrient information – in 100 g or 100 ml – become mandatory.

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The UK’s proposal to include additional visual elements will go down well with health campaigners. Some EU member states are unlikely to be as keen. Front-of-pack traffic light labels – applied voluntarily in the UK – have been criticised since their introduction three years ago. Around 100 MEPs​ recently urged the European Commission to investigate the commercial and economic impact of the scheme.

But last week, the UK Department of Health told FoodNavigator there is no credible evidence​ the labels are a barrier to trade. Lawyers also suggested the traffic lights are in line with EU legislation.

For the moment the UK has to comply with labelling laws set in Brussels. However, the government has already put on record that Brexit will provide “greater flexibility”​ in relation to front-of-pack nutritional information.

Related topics: Regulation & Safety