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Critics call for new approach to sugar reduction as food industry misses voluntary targets

young woman with glasses smiling
4 min read
AUTHOR: Fiona Holland
Glass filled with sugar cubes

The Government’s latest sugar reduction programme progress report indicates that many food companies have failed to meet a voluntary sugar reduction target of 20% by 2020.

Launched in 2016, the sugar reduction programme set a goal for all food industry sectors to voluntarily reduce sugar by 20% in products highly consumed by children under the age of 18 by 2020.

The food categories where reduction was proposed included breakfast cereals, yoghurt and fromage frais, sweet confectionery, biscuits, cakes, chocolate, ice cream, lollies and sorbets, baked goods including pastries, buns and waffles, puddings and sweet spreads and sauces.

Unsweetened juice and sweetened milk-based drinks were added to the programme in 2018, with the aim of reducing sugar content by 5% in juice and 20% in milky drinks by 2021. Fermented yoghurt drinks were also incorporated in 2019, with a sugar reduction target of 20% by 2021.

According to the report there was an overall 3.5% reduction in sugar in retail own-brand and manufacturer branded products sold between 2015 and 2020.

Larger reductions were achieved in specific food categories, but none of these reached the 20% mark. Sugar content was reduced by 13.5% in yoghurts and fromage frais products, 14.9% in breakfast cereals, and 7.2% in ice cream. Puddings only achieved a 2.3% reduction.

A 10.1% reduction in sugar compared to the baseline was also seen in sweet spreads and sauces. This was largely helped however by the increased sales of peanut butter in the five-year period, which is generally lower in sugar in comparison to other spreads, according to the report.

Larger sugar reductions were visible in drinks categories. Milkshake powders, syrups and pods as consumed, and coffee and tea powders, syrups and pods all saw a 34.2% reduction in average sugar content per 100ml. Hot chocolate and malt powders, syrups and pods however saw an increase of 5.1%.

Several critics have spoken out on the food industry’s failure to meet the targets. Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said that while the report shows the food industry can successfully reduce sugar in some products, it also reveals voluntary reformulation is not the right approach.

He commented: “The UK faces an obesity crisis and one of the principle plans outlined by the Department of Health and Public Health England was to tackle this by reducing sugar in food products by 20% by 2020 across the main food categories. Not surprisingly the plan was an abject failure due to a lack of enforcement.

“We mustn’t forget that unhealthy diets high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (which lack fruit and vegetables) is the biggest cause of death and disability globally and costs the UK more than £100 billion (combined) annually. Procrastinating any further should not be an option.”

Katharine Jenner, Director of the Obesity Health Alliance added: “A voluntary approach has been shown not to be able to deliver the required level of progress to make any significant and lasting change. Instead, excessive and unnecessary amounts of harmful sugars are added to food and drink products which should and must be reduced if we want to improve the nation’s health.

“We hope lessons have been learned from this vital monitoring of food industry activity from the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities and that ministers now fully understand that insufficient progress has been made and that alternative levers are needed.”

In comparison to the voluntary sugar reduction programme, the report shows that obligatory targets, such as the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), have been more successful in helping consumers reduce their sugar intake, with the total sugar purchased per household coming from drinks subject to the SDIL having decreased across all socioeconomic groups.

MacGregor said: “Like with the successful soft drinks levy, the food industry wants certainty and direction which is why the Government must commit to measures such as mandatory targets for calories, sugar and salt reduction, enforced marketing and promotions restrictions and clearer, mandatory food labelling.

Jenner added: “Evidence suggests that the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has been an enormous success – reducing sugar intake even for people on lower incomes without leading to a decline in sales. The Government must now explore ways of expanding this model in order to fix the broken food environment and make the healthy option the easiest and most affordable option for everyone.”

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