Sweets and puddings ‘get sweeter’ despite sugar reduction plan

Food firms are failing to cut sugar fast enough, with puddings and sweets actually getting more sugary and people consuming more of it overall, figures show.

A new report from Public Health England (PHE) found inadequate progress is being made on a voluntary target for the food industry to reduce 20% of sugar from key food categories by the end of 2020.

However, the “sugar tax” on soft drinks – which came into force by law in 2018 – is proving much more effective, with a 28.8% reduction in sugar per 100ml of drink.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he wants to see a review of so-called “sin taxes” – including the sugar tax – to see how effective they are.

The new PHE study found retailers and manufacturers have slashed sugar by just 2.9% overall since 2015.

The sugar content of puddings actually rose 0.5%, while sweets went up 0.6%, and there was little change for chocolate (0.3% reduction in sugar) or ice cream and lollies (0.3% reduction in sugar).

The sugar content of biscuits fell just 0.6% but there was more progress on breakfast cereals (8.5% drop), yoghurts and fromage frais (10.3% drop) and sweet spreads and sauces (4.6% drop). The sugar content of cakes fell by almost 5%.

But the report said the amount of sugar in foods bought at the supermarket has increased from 723,000 tonnes in 2015 to 743,000 tonnes in 2018.

PHE said this was the equivalent of everybody increasing their sugar consumption by 0.5%.

This could mean that people are actually buying more sugar.

Among the out-of-home sector (including restaurants, pubs and cafes), the sugar drop across all foods was 4.9%.

In the study, Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “The report shows a mixed picture.

“Encouragingly, some businesses have made good progress in reducing sugar but some businesses and categories have made very little or none.

“We know the public wants the food industry to make food healthier.

“It is clear this can be done, but we urge the whole of the food and drink industry to keep up the momentum to help families make healthier choices.”

Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, 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.”

Businesses have been cutting sugar in one or more ways – lowering the amount of sugar per 100g in their products, reducing portion size, and/or moving consumers towards lower or no added sugar products.

Katharine Jenner, campaign director of Action on Sugar, welcomed the reduction in sugar in cereals and yoghurts but said it was “shameful that other manufacturers are dragging their heels and will likely fail to meet the 20% target”.

She said the Government “should be proud” it was “brave enough to introduce the soft drinks levy which has been remarkable in that it allowed for significant sugar reduction in drinks.

“This demonstrates that, when properly motivated, the food industry can give us healthier options.

“It is imperative that this momentum and levy continues and is applied to calorie-dense processed foods and milk-based drinks that meet an agreed criterion set by the Government.

“Fat is a bigger contributor to calories in the diet than sugar and therefore essential that manufacturers are encouraged to reduce both in order to tackle the UK’s unhealthy eating habits and excessive calorie intake.”

Tim Rycroft, chief operating officer of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), which represents the food industry, said: “Today’s report from PHE shows that food and drink manufacturers are continuing to reformulate and change portion size to remove sugar from the nation’s diet.

“This is an ongoing process, and since this data was collected in August 2018, FDF member companies have launched many new lower-sugar recipes to great acclaim.

“We have repeatedly pointed out that PHE set hugely aspirational targets and that these could never be met across all categories in the ambitious timeframe given.

“What it does highlight is that the challenges of sugar reduction vary greatly from category to category.

“Everyone is playing their part and we’ve already seen lots of great innovation since then, with plenty more in the pipeline.”

Kate Oldridge-Turner, head of policy and public affairs at the World Cancer Research Fund, said the sugar tax “not only decreases purchases but decreases it across all socio-economic groups.

“This is further evidence that policies, including taxes, are vital in tackling the obesity epidemic we are facing today.”

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