The food industry has failed to hit its target of cutting sugar by 5% over the past year, with experts describing the results as “hugely disappointing” and suggesting the government may be forced to introduce a tax, as with sugary drinks.
Public Health England had called for a cut of 20% of sugar in the products we buy to take home and eat in cafes by 2020, with 5% in the first year. In a massive new report, PHE shows food manufacturers and supermarkets have cut out 2% over the first 12 months, but much more has been achieved in some areas and by some companies than others.
Only three food groups of the eight measured have managed at least a 5% reduction: sweet spreads and sauces, yoghurts and fromage frais, and breakfast cereals. There has been no sugar reduction in biscuits and chocolate bars, although we consume less because they have become smaller. Puddings, meanwhile, have actually become sweeter.
While PHE applauded the industry’s efforts, some critics slammed them as inadequate. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) described the results in the first year as “hugely disappointing” and said the government would soon have no choice but to ditch the voluntary approach for mandatory targets.
“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,” said Prof Russell Viner, president of the RCPCH.
The Obesity Health Alliance also spoke of disappointment and called for a revamped obesity plan. “We have seen the success of the soft drinks industry levy in turbo-charging reformulation in sugary soft drinks,” said its lead, Caroline Cerny. “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.”
Chocolate confectionery has a very long way to go. A Terry’s Chocolate Orange contains 58.5g of sugar per 100g. A Cadbury Crunchie contains 65g per 100g. Of the top 20 brands, only Nestlé’s Kit Kat Chunky has decreased in sugar (now at 52.7g per 100g) – by reducing the portion size and calorie count – and Cadbury’s Double Decker has actually gone up.
Among ice creams, Wall’s Cornettos and Magnums contain a bit less sugar, but its Soleros contain more. Starbucks has reformulated its chocolate brownies and carrot cake with less sugar. Tesco and Waitrose are among the supermarkets to cut the sugar in their own-brand breakfast cereals and so has Jordans, although Dorset muesli still has 23.4g of sugar and Kellogg’s Crunchy Nut contains 35.3g per 100g.
The puddings category, however, has failed to make progress. Ambrosia rice pudding, Mr Kipling sponge pudding and Nestlé Aero chilled mousse were all found to have increased in sugar content and/or calories.
The detail of the report is designed to incentivise the food industry to do more and provide a baseline for measuring what it does over the coming years. PHE says next year’s report will give a clearer picture of the adequacy of the industry’s response.
Steve Brine, public health minister, hinted that the industry could be compelled to do more. “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,” he said.
“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.”
By contrast with the voluntary 5% sugar reduction in foods, the tough measure taken against sugary drinks in the form of the sugar tax is getting results. The PHE report said that sugar has been reduced by 11% in soft drinks and the average calories in single drink are down by 6%.
The data also shows that people are buying more drinks with less sugar – below the 5g per 100ml where the tax kicks in. That could be a result of publicity around high-sugar drinks or because of price.
Juice and milk-based drinks for children are now to be included in the PHE sugar-reduction programme, because they are not subject to the tax. PHE wants manufacturers and retailers to cut the sugar levels in juice-based drinks by 5% by 2021 and end sales of single drinks, including smoothies, larger than 150ml. Milk-based drinks should have 20% less sugar and no single drink should be larger than 300ml.
PHE’s chief executive, Duncan Selbie, said “tackling the obesity crisis needs the whole food industry to step up, in particular those businesses that have as yet taken little or no action”.
A quarter of children who start primary school are overweight or obese – and that rises to a third by the time they leave for secondary school at 11.
“This is about tackling the nation’s obesity crisis,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE. “Too many children and adults suffer the effects of obesity, as does society, with our NHS under needless pressure. Obesity widens economic inequalities, affecting the poor the hardest.”
The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said companies were engaging with what are sometimes difficult technical issues.
“As PHE correctly point out, reformulation takes time – it can’t happen overnight,” said Tim Rycroft, director of corporate affairs. “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.
“Obesity poses a huge public health challenge in the UK, and food and drink companies are well aware of their role in addressing this issue. 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% – and there is more work in the pipeline.”
He also called for cafes and restaurants to do more. “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,” he said. “This is at a time when 25% of total calorie consumption takes place outside the home.”