Restricting the promotion of HFSS foods in the UK: Challenges for sports and active nutrition businesses and how to tackle them


Related tags sugar reduction HFSS reformulation

What do sports nutrition businesses need to do to address regulatory challenges for foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar (HFSS)? Dr Adam Carey, Chairman of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), takes a look in this guest article.

Over the last few years, policy makers in both the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) have focussed their efforts on tackling rising obesity rates.

With 52% of adults being considered​ overweight or obese in the EU, and up to 63% in the UK​, decision makers are increasingly determined to address this public health issue by introducing binding legislation.

Although the sports and active nutrition sector plays a crucial part in supporting healthy and active lifestyles to tackle the skyrocketing obesity rates across the continent, there is a risk that the forthcoming advertising and promotion restrictions for HFSS foods will have a disincentivising impact on the industry.

With the UK Government currently consulting​ stakeholders on the implementation of online and TV advertising restrictions, ESSNA dives into the latest policy developments on this front and shares its views on what sports nutrition businesses need to do to address regulatory challenges.

The UK Government’s plans to tackle obesity

As part of the Health and Care Act​, in April 2022, the UK Government introduced new legislation to tackle childhood obesity by restricting the advertising and promotion of HFSS products.

Based on the Nutrient Profiling Model ​(NPM), and focusing on product categories that are significant contributors to children’s sugar and calorie intakes, the Government aims to restrict the paid-for advertisement for HFSS foods on TV and online by introducing a watershed between 9pm and 5:30am, while also restricting volume promotions, and prohibiting their placing at key locations in supermarkets.

The corresponding implementation guidance​ indicates that certain sports foods, including protein bars, powders and energy drinks, may be caught up in the restrictions.

While the restrictions on product placements already entered into force in October 2022, the multi-buy promotions are envisaged to enter into force in October 2023, and the online and TV restrictions are set to enter into force in October 2025.

Anticipated impact on the sports and active nutrition industry

While the sports and active nutrition industry fully supports the ambitions to tackle obesity rates, especially among children, businesses in the sector need to work together to ensure that sports foods are seen as part of the solution to address obesity – and not regarded as a problem.

'Higher concentrations of certain nutrients in sports foods are intended to meet the specific needs of adults engaged in exercise and other forms of activity - but may be unfairly penalised by the restrictions. This issue is particularly relevant to manufacturers of certain products, such as sports drinks with added sugars.'

The reason is twofold: the first reason relates to the NPM model.

The NPM uses a scoring system which balances the contribution made by beneficial nutrients that are particularly important in children’s diets with components in the food that children should eat less of.

The overall rating indicates whether or not the food (or drink) can be advertised to children.

By focusing solely on food composition, the NPM model disregards the specific purpose that specialist products, such as sports foods, serve, increasing the likelihood that these products will be subject to HFSS restrictions.

As a result, while sports foods are not intended for children, and their higher concentrations of certain nutrients are intended to meet the specific needs of adults engaged in exercise and other forms of activity, they may be unfairly penalised by the restrictions.

This issue is particularly relevant to manufacturers of certain sports and active nutrition products, such as protein bars, powders, and sports drinks with added sugars. With this in mind, industry stakeholders need to ensure that the UK Government will provide sufficient guidelines to enforcement authorities as regards the application of the HFSS legislation to avoid blanket restrictions that will damage specialist sectors such as sports and active nutrition.

Secondly, policy makers have introduced stricter regulations of HFSS foods to give businesses in the sector an incentive to reformulate their products. Yet, because of the special composition of sports foods - which aims to help sportspeople supplement their diets - room for reformulation is often small for these products and it would come at the expense of their functionality.

Also, where reformulation of sports and active nutrition products is possible, it would be associated with high costs, such as for research and development of new formulas, tasting panels, sensory studies and third-party certification. A recent industry case study conducted by ESSNA has revealed that such reformulation requirements would cost the industry up to 4,000,000€.*

By promoting healthy and active lifestyles, the sports and active nutrition industry plays a key role in supporting the UK Government’s objectives of a healthier, fitter Britain. To ensure that this crucial role is recognised by legislation, the sector needs to convey this message to policy makers and ensure that any upcoming regulatory changes aimed at promoting healthy diets recognise the specificities of, and crucial role, played by sports foods.

The public consultation on the online and TV advertising restrictions for HFSS foods in the UK closes on 31st​ March. Industry stakeholders interested in responding to this consultation as well as in staying updated on all relevant regulatory developments and helping shape upcoming legislative changes can get in touch with the ESSNA Secretariat via vasb@rffan.pbz​.

Adam Carey picture

Dr Adam Carey is the Chairman of the European Specialist Sports Nutrition Alliance (ESSNA), the trade association representing the interests of the sport and active nutrition sector across Europe. ESSNA works to secure appropriate and proportionate European legislation on sports and active nutrition products and is in close dialogue with a wide variety of stakeholders, such as policymakers and senior officials in the relevant bodies, to do this. More information on ESSNA is available here.

* The research was carried out in 2022 to assess the impact of a mandatory front-of-pack nutrition labelling scheme in the EU for the industry. Participants in the survey included ingredients manufacturers, brands and suppliers across Europe with wide product portfolio, including food supplements and protein shakes.

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