British food firms fail on government's 5% sugar reduction target

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Some categories fared better than others in reducing sugar content. © GettyImages/bogdandreava
Some categories fared better than others in reducing sugar content. © GettyImages/bogdandreava
UK food and drink manufacturers have fallen short of Public Health England’s 5% voluntary target for sugar reduction, achieving just 2% at the end of the first year.

In 2016, Public Health England, the body that advises the British government on public health policy for all of the UK (and not just England), challenged the food industry to voluntarily cut sugar in 10 categories by 20% by 2020. It also wanted to see a 5% reduction by the end of the first year.

This reformulation programme, which forms part of the UK government’s childhood obesity action plan, covers the categories breakfast cereals; yoghurts; biscuits; cakes; morning goods; puddings; ice creams, lollies and sorbets; confectionery (chocolate and sweets) and sweet spreads, which is sub-categorised into chocolate spread, peanut butter, dessert toppings/sauces and fruit spreads.

It suggested businesses had three ways to take action: lowering the amount of sugar per 100 g (reformulation), reducing portion size and shifting consumers’ purchasing patterns towards low- or no added sugar products.

According to the report, released today, food and drink firms have cut sugar levels in five out of the eight food targeted categories.

Private label and branded products managed a 2% reduction in total sugar per 100 g.

Compared to the baseline year, 2015, yoghurt and fromage frais products reduced sugar by 6% while manufacturers of breakfast cereals and sweet spreads achieved a 5% decrease.

The cost of a sweet tooth

Almost a quarter of children (23%) begin primary school overweight or obese, and this rises to more than a third of children (34%) by the time they start high school.

Almost two-thirds (62%) of adults are overweight or obese, according to PHE, and one quarter (25%) of five-year-olds suffers from tooth decay.

Poor diet is responsible for up to 70,000 deaths a year in the UK, according to the British Medical Association. 

The sugar content in biscuits and chocolate confectionery did not change. Sweet confectionery managed a 1% reduction while the average sugar content in puddings increased by 1%.

PHE was unable to calculate the change for private label or branded cakes and morning goods due to data limitations but these categories should be included in the 2019 report.

Brands whose products were affected by the soft drinks industry levy​ fared better, managing to reduce sugar levels per 100 ml by 11% while the calorie content of these drinks likely to be consumed on a single occasion also fell by 6%.

These results are the first to be published from the four-year programme and, taking into account the time needed for reformulated products to hit shelves,  PHE said: "A clearer indication of progress across the whole industry will be available in 2019.”

FDF: Targets were too ambitious

Tim Rycroft, director of corporate affairs at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), the association representing the interests of British manufacturers, said it was “encouraged​” by the report.

“In some categories we have always said that sugar reduction would be particularly challenging. Nonetheless many of those categories have made good progress in reducing calories.

“As PHE correctly point out, reformulation takes time – it can’t happen overnight. Sugar reduction has considerable technical challenges; sugar plays a variety of roles beyond sweetness in food including colour, texture and consistency. 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.”

When the targets were announced last year, FDF said it would not be technically possible, nor acceptable to consumers.

Rycroft said the food industry was “well aware​” of its role in obesity. “For the last decade the UK’s food and drink companies have been reformulating their products to reduce sugar, calories, fat and salt, as well as limiting portion sizes. In fact, over the last five years FDF members have reduced calorie content in the average basket by 5.5%, and sugar content by 12.1%.”

BMA: 'Very disappointing'

However, chair of the British Medical Association’s board of science committee Professor Dame Parveen Kumar said the figures showed “a very disappointing lack of progress in tackling the massive problem of childhood obesity”. 

"Perhaps this is not surprising as the government rowed back on its promises in 2016 and produced a weak plan rather than the robust strategy promised. While there’s been limited progress in reducing sugar in some categories, overall it hasn’t even come close to meeting the target 5% reduction.

Kumar said the results proved that relying on manufacturers to voluntarily reduce sugar in their products was a false economy. “Change will only come through a mandatory approach backed up by regulation,” ​she said.

Kawther Hashem, ​nutritionist at Action on Sugar, said it welcomed PHE’s first assessment of progress on the government’s sugar reduction programme but said more needed to be done – particularly on biscuits, chocolate confectionery, puddings and food purchased from the out-of-home sector.

Technical barriers 

Chris Wells, managing director at Leatherhead Food Research, said the multi-functionality of sugar could account for some categories failing to reduce levels.

“Reducing sugar in categories such as breakfast cereals is relatively straightforward,” ​Wells said. “It’s generally used as a surface coating, and this can be thinned, replaced with a different sweetening ingredient and could even benefit from technical solutions such as hollow sugar crystals. When it comes to cakes, biscuits and ice cream, sugar is more integral, interacting with other ingredients to influence core properties.

"For instance, removing or reducing sugar in cakes can have a detrimental impact on the mixing and baking process. In some cases, recipes simply won’t work without sugar, or the end product is unpalatable."

Wells said there was no quick fix to these challenges but using techniques such as imaging, chemical analysis and rheology to analyse textural properties could be used to cut sugar. 

Foodservice must engage

Rycroft also called on foodservice providers, such as restaurants and cafes, to engage with this programme.

In many categories, the calorie content per portion of food served in cafes, coffee shops and restaurants is almost double that of manufacturers and retailers – this is at a time when 25% of total calorie consumption takes place outside the home,” ​he said.

According to a report published yesterday by Kantar Worldpanel, the British public spent £49 billion (€56bn) on food and drink bought and eaten out of the home last year, with 98% of the public making an out of home purchase over the course of the year.

“Work is continuing to move forward in other areas of the wider reformulation programme which will ultimately lead to a broader programme covering more areas of concern in relation to UK diets and the public’s health. This work includes the setting of calorie reduction guidelines and reviewing progress on salt reduction,” ​the PHE report said.

Action on Sugar will tomorrow launch a seven-point evidence-based plan, which will call on the British government to introduce an energy density levy on confectionery, make nutritional labelling on menus and packaging mandatory and ban marketing of HFSS products. ​ 

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