Government’s voluntary sugar reduction plan heading for failure


The Government’s plan for the food industry to voluntarily cut 20% of sugar from key foods by the end of the year is set to fail, with data showing firms have only managed a 3% reduction.

A report from Public Health England (PHE) covering progress from 2015 to 2019 found puddings have got sweeter and people are buying more chocolates and sweets.

Overall, while good progress has been made on some products such as breakfast cereals and yoghurt, the 3% reduction is unchanged from the rate noted in last year’s report.

The latest study found:

– Sugar levels in chocolate and sweets are relatively unchanged while sales of these products have increased, growing 16% and 7% respectively between 2015 and 2019.

– Sales are also up for sweet spreads and sauces (up 12%) and for ice cream, lollies and sorbets (8%).

– The mandatory sugary drinks tax – which is separate to the voluntary 20% reduction target – is proving effective, with a 44% fall in sugar.

– Only “marginal progress” has been made in reducing sugar in products bought in the eating out of home sector – such as cakes and puddings purchased from restaurants or cafes – although calories in these products have declined.

– Overall there has been hardly any change since 2015 in the calories in products likely to be consumed on a single occasion, for purchases made in shops and supermarkets. Puddings are mostly to blame, while sweets and biscuits have also seen a slight rise in calorie content.

– Overall there has been a 2.6% increase in the tonnes of sugar sold in the products studied. The population also increased during this period, effectively meaning no change in the amount of sugar purchased per person.

In 2016, as part of its childhood obesity drive, the Government challenged the food and hospitality industry to reduce sugar by 20% in foods that contribute most to children’s sugar consumption.

To achieve this, firms could reduce sugar levels, reduce portion sizes or encourage customers to buy lower sugar products.

Targets were also set later for milk-based drinks and fruit juices.

The PHE study said good progress was being made on milk-based drinks and fruit juices, but there were more mixed results for drinks such as milkshakes bought in cafes and restaurants.

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “Too much sugar is bad for our health and most of us are consuming more than we need, often without realising it.

“We’ve continued to see some progress in reducing sugar in a number of everyday food and drink products and this shows that success is possible through reformulation.

“Yet overall progress remains too slow. Faster and more robust action is needed to help us consume less sugar, which will help us become healthier and lower the economic burden of obesity and preventable pressure on the NHS.”

According to the report, most adults and children in England consume more than double the maximum recommended daily amount of sugar.

Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese and one in three children are overweight or obese by the time they start secondary school.

Public health minister Jo Churchill said: “On sugar reduction, particularly in products like breakfast cereals, yoghurts and ice cream, we have achieved some much-needed progress.

“This will make it easier for everyone to make healthier choices, but it’s clear more can be done.

“Covid-19 has highlighted obesity and how important it is to tackle it.

“Our recent announcement of the obesity strategy includes world-leading measures such as a TV watershed for advertising food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar, and consulting on how we can introduce a ban online.

“If more action is needed to support individuals to lead a healthy life we will go further to help them.”

Tam Fry, chairman of the National Obesity Forum, said mandatory sugar reductions must now be set, adding: “The figures are truly appalling but to be expected when government continues to rely on industry voluntarily reducing sugar levels in its products.”

Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London, said: “Apart from the sugary drinks levy, it’s abundantly clear that the Government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme is simply not working, after reporting a dismal 0.1% reduction in sugar between 2018 and 2019.

“Food and drink companies that want to do the right thing are crying out for a level playing field, which can only be achieved by setting mandatory targets for calorie and sugar reduction.

“The soft drinks levy has shown that this approach is both best for business, and best for everyone’s health, including people from more disadvantaged groups.”

Jacob West, executive director of healthcare innovation at the British Heart Foundation, said: “Today’s report paints a frankly disappointing overall picture of sales of sugary products going up, rather than down – and it is children who will pay the price.

“While there is no silver bullet to reducing obesity rates, the Government must now clearly signal to industry that it is ready to take tougher regulatory and fiscal measures to reduce sugar.”

The Food and Drinks Federation’s chief operating officer, Tim Rycroft, said: “Today’s report from PHE shows that food and drink manufacturers are continuing to reformulate and change portion sizes in order to remove sugar from the nation’s diet.

“Particularly notable is the great progress made by manufacturers to slash sugar in milk drinks, showing once again voluntary action by industry works when realistic goals are set.

“As expected, we continue to see varying results in food due to the many different roles sugar can play in food and how acceptable changes are to our shoppers and consumers.”

He said the FDF had long said that PHE’s sugar reduction guidelines and timeframes “are ambitious and won’t be met across all categories”.

He added: “The report’s data is from 2019 and therefore it is not reflective of the products on the market currently where further progress may have been made. As PHE have themselves pointed out, reformulation takes time – it can’t happen overnight.”