Targets to Cut Sugar in Food 'Likely to Be Missed'

Peter Russell

September 23, 2019

A lack of overall progress in cutting sugar levels in foods popular with children makes it unlikely that a 20% reduction by 2020 will be achieved, a report by Public Health England (PHE) said.

Overall there was a 2.9% reduction in total sugar (measured by sales weighted average in grams per 100g) in products sold between 2015 and 2018 by retailer own brand and manufacturer branded products.

The out of home sector, which included restaurants, pubs, and cafes, saw a 4.9% reduction between 2017 and 2018. However, the report said this was based on more limited data.

In contrast, between 2015 and 2018 there was a 28.8% reduction in the average sugar content of own brand and manufacturer branded drinks subject to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy. For drinks consumed away from home, the reduction was 27.2%.

The total tonnes of sugar sold in foods included in the reformulation programme from the in-home sector actually increased by 2.6% between 2015 and 2018, the report showed.

'A Wake-up Call'

Experts said the results of the voluntary sugar reduction programme showed the limits of self-regulation. Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: "While there are pockets of progress, industry is largely asleep at the wheel. It is time for a wake-up call. One in three children is overweight or obese by age 11 and the food industry has a major role to play in helping us turn this around."

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said it had repeatedly warned that the target was too ambitious.

The progress report found wide variations in progress in different food categories.

Retailer own brand and manufacturer branded yoghurts and fromage frais, and breakfast cereals, recorded a reduction of 10.3% and 8.5% respectively.

There were small increases in sugar levels for puddings and sweet confectionery.

PHE said business had three options to meet the 20% reduction target: reformulation, produce smaller portions, or encourage consumers to buy lower or no sugar products.

Duncan Selbie, PHE chief executive, said: "We are seeing some encouraging progress from the food industry. Our second year report shows some food categories reducing sugar faster than others but this is realistic at this early stage.

"We are confident that the industry as a whole understands their responsibility to step up and deliver for children and their families."

PHE said that a third of children leave primary school overweight or obese.

Call for Mandatory Targets

Helen Dickens from Diabetes UK said: "This report makes it clear that, where the Soft Drinks Industry Levy has succeeded, reformulation efforts through the sugar reduction programme have struggled.

"With the programme very unlikely to meet the 20% target, Government needs to start exploring different options now."

Sue Kellie, deputy chief executive of the British Dietetic Association, said: "It is disappointing that there is so much variation both between food categories and between different food companies. It is clear that some are engaging with the voluntary scheme while others are choosing to ignore it.

"That some companies have increased the amount of sugar in their products is particularly worrying."

Prof Dame Parveen Kumar, board of science chair at the British Medical Association, said: "It's clear that this industry needs mandatory measures to reduce the amount of sugar in our food and drink. This will be by far the most effective means of reducing the public's sugar consumption and help stem the growing obesity crisis.

"The Government has a responsibility to follow through on its commitments to introduce a 9pm watershed on advertising high sugar foods and place further restrictions on the promotion of unhealthy food and drink."

Tim Rycroft, FDF chief operating officer, described the sugar reduction targets as "hugely aspirational" and said that they "could never be met across all categories in the ambitious timeframe".

"What it does highlight is that the challenges of sugar reduction vary greatly from category-to-category," he said. "Everyone is playing their part and we've already seen lots of great innovation since then, with plenty more in the pipeline."

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