UK sugar reduction efforts fail to reach initial target, industry urged to step up or face tax

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23 May 2018 --- The first assessment of the UK government’s sugar reduction program has unveiled failings by industry to reduce sugar in the first year by 5 percent, leading to calls of a sugar tax on sweet treats. The results of the first year have been roundly criticized in the media and described as “hugely disappointing” after Public Health England data revealed that sugar was cut in some categories – sweet spreads and sauces, yogurts and fromage frais and breakfast cereals – while other food groups have fallen short.

The PHE assessment covers the period from August 2016 to August 2017 and gives insight into how industry has handled things so far –  and despite a government crackdown on sugar, the blitz on sweet treats has gotten off to a slow start.

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Image credit: PHE.

In August 2016, the government published Childhood obesity: A plan for action which included a commitment for PHE to oversee a sugar reduction program. This challenged all sectors of the food industry – including retailers, manufacturers, restaurants, cafés and pub chains – to reduce by 20 percent by 2020 the level of sugar in the categories that contribute most to the intakes of children up to 18 years. Industry was also challenged to achieve a 5 percent reduction in the first year of the program.

Businesses were encouraged to focus their efforts on their top-selling products within ten categories that contribute the most sugar to children’s diets. They have three options to help them do this – reduce sugar levels through reformulation, provide smaller portions, or encourage consumers to purchase lower or no-sugar products.

Despite the sluggish start, PHE says the results so far are “encouraging” with retailers and manufacturers achieving a 2 percent reduction in both average sugar content and calories in products likely to be consumed in one go.

And while this does not meet the 5 percent ambition, PHE recognizes there are more sugar reduction plans from the food industry in the pipeline – and some changes to products that are not yet captured in the data as they took effect after the first year cut-off point.

For instance, PHE is not yet able to report on the progress made in the cakes and morning goods categories for retailer and manufacturer’s products due to limitations with the data. Neither is it possible to report on progress for the eating out of home sector alone as part of this initial assessment and progress is expected to be reported next year. 

So future assessments could look a lot brighter. 

For the eight food categories where progress has been measured, the assessment also shows there have been reductions in sugar levels across five categories. Yoghurts and fromage frais, breakfast cereals, and sweet spreads and sauces have all met or exceeded the initial 5 percent sugar reduction ambition; sugar levels are generally the same across all sectors. However, for the eating out-of-home sector, portion sizes in products likely to be consumed in one go are substantially larger – on average more than double – those of retailers and manufacturers.

Calories have also been reduced in products likely to be consumed in one go in four categories, mainly as a result of products being reduced in size. Of these, ice cream, lollies and sorbets and yogurts and fromage frais have reduced average calories by more than 5 percent. 

The success in soft drinks
According to the report, soft drinks is one of the only categories to have achieved the 5 percent target for year one.

“It comes as no surprise to us that sugar intake from soft drinks has decreased by almost five times as much as other categories – down 18.7 percent since 2013 – a trend which correlates with industry’s strong track record in sugar reduction before the introduction of the soft drinks levy,” says Gavin Partington, Director General of the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA).

“We are the only category on track to achieving PHE’s calorie reduction target of 20 percent by 2020.”

“We all have a role to play in helping to tackle obesity and we hope our actions on sugar reduction, portion size and promotion of low and no-calorie products set an example for the wider food sector,” he adds.

In parallel to this, PHE has also published new sugar reduction guidelines for juice and milk-based drinks that are currently excluded from the soft drinks industry levy.

PHE’s sugar reduction ambition for juice-based drinks is for a 5 percent sugar reduction and 150 kcal cap by mid-2021.

“We are pleased to see PHE recognize that the (naturally occurring) sugars in pure fruit juice cannot be removed or reformulated, and so are excluded from the sales weight average for reduction in sugar content,” adds Partington. “Given that the nation is not consuming enough fruit, vegetables and fiber, it is important that any sugar reduction targets put on a category do not inadvertently undermine foods which provide these sources.”

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Imae credit: British Retail Consortium.

What is the reaction from government, industry & health advocates?
With a third of children leaving primary school overweight or obese, PHE continues to call for increased action from all sectors of the food industry to achieve the 20 percent reduction ambition by 2020.

“We lead the world in having the most stringent sugar reformulation targets and it is encouraging to see that some progress has been made in the first year. However, we do not underestimate the scale of the challenge we face. We are monitoring progress closely and have not ruled out taking further action,” says Steve Brine, Public Health Minister, hinting towards the possibility of legislation. 

Tim Rycroft, Food and Drink Federation Director of Corporate Affairs, says the organization is encouraged with the recent reformulation work undertaken by industry but points out that challenges. 

“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,” he says. 

“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 color, 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.”

Rycroft reiterates how food and drink companies are well aware of their role in addressing the obesity crisis in the UK and have been reformulating products over the last decade to reduce sugar, salt, fat, calories and portion sizes. 

He says that over the last five years Food and Drink Federation (FDF) members have reduced calorie content in the average basket by 5.5 percent, and sugar content by 12.1 percent – and there is more work in the pipeline.

“The out of home sector must show a greater commitment to engaging with this program. 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 percent of total calorie consumption takes place outside the home,” he adds. 

The British Retail Consortium also stresses how retailers remain committed to helping improve health and have “led the way” in reducing sugar in their products. 

“Thousands of tons of sugar have been removed from retailers’ own product ranges to date and continuing work will result in even greater reductions over the next few years,” says Andrew Opie, Director of Food Policy at the British Retail Consortium.

“Retailers have shown that reducing sugar levels across a wide range of products is possible but all food businesses must follow suit if we are to see significant reductions in the level of sugar in the nation’s diet.”

Meanwhile the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA) is calling to a review of the government’s obesity plan after such a “disappointing” start. 

“These results show a very mixed picture. Some brands have managed to meet or exceed the initial 5 percent target, stepping up to play their role in improving children’s health. However it’s very worrying that the majority of the top 20 highest selling, sugary brands have failed to make any progress or have even increased their sugar content,” an OHA statement notes. 

“This disappointing lack of progress across the board means it’s now more important than ever that the Government goes further and faster to bring in strong measures to reduce childhood obesity and get tougher on those companies who are not set to meet the 20 percent target.”

The OHA points towards the success of the sugar tax that recently came into force (April 6) in the UK which heavily impacted the soft drinks industry for years beforehand as agile manufacturers knew the levy was coming in and so reformulated products well in advance.

“We have seen the success of the soft drinks industry levy in turbo-charging reformulation in sugary soft drinks.  We also know that stronger marketing restrictions, including a 9pm watershed on TV, would help protect children from relentless exposure to junk food and encourage manufacturers to make their foods healthier. Now is the time for the Government to protect our children’s health with a truly world-leading obesity plan,” the statement continues. 

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health also heavily criticizes the lack of progress and even goes one step further calling into question industry’s engagement with a voluntary approach. 

"These results, whilst hugely disappointing, show that industry can reformulate but must do better. Of the top 20 brands, only a third showed any decrease in sugar content – and worryingly 12 percent actually increased the amount of sugar in their products,” a statement says. 

“The 5 percent reduction target for the first year has only been met by three food groups, which doesn’t bode well for meeting the 20 percent target by 2020. At best, this is industry being slow to react, at worst – and in reality – it seriously calls into question industry’s engagement with the voluntary approach.” 

“The government will soon be left with no choice but to introduce mandatory targets and there must be clarity as to the timeline for this process and what the targets would be,” it continues.
“We need a package of tough measures if we have any chance of reducing the amount of sugar the nation, and particularly children, are consuming, and which we know is a major contributor to the growing obesity epidemic.”

The next progress report on the sugar reduction program is due in spring 2019.

By Gaynor Selby

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