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Food industry has failed to hit sugar reduction target

Only a 2% reduction in average sugar content was achieved this year - the target was 5%

Ingrid Torjesen

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

The food industry has failed to hit the government’s target to achieve a 5% reduction this year in both average sugar content and calories of its products, Public Health England’s (PHE) first assessment* on progress on the government’s sugar reduction programme shows.

As part of the government’s plan to reduce childhood obesity, the food industry, including retailers, manufacturers, restaurants, cafés and pub chains, has been challenged to cut 20% of sugar from a range of products by 2020, with a 5% reduction in the first year.

However, PHE’s report shows that retailers and manufacturers have made slow progress towards meeting that 5% ambition, achieving just a 2% reduction in both average sugar content and calories against a 2015 baseline.

The report says that while the 5% ambition has not been met, PHE recognises that the food industry has more sugar reduction plans in the pipeline and that some changes to products have already been made but were not captured in the data as they took effect after the first year cut-off point.

For the eight food categories where progress has been measured, the assessment shows that in five categories - yoghurts and fromage frais, breakfast cereals, and sweet spreads and sauces – the ambition to reduce sugar levels by 5% has been met or exceeded.

Retailers and manufacturers have also reduced calories in products likely to be consumed in one go in four categories, for example by reducing the size of the product. Of these, ice cream, lollies and sorbets, and yoghurts and fromage frais have reduced average calories by more than 5%.

PHE has not yet able to report on the progress made in the cakes and morning goods categories for retailer and manufacturer’s products, or on progress for the eating out of home sector alone, due to limitations with the data.

As part of the programme, businesses are encouraged to focus efforts on their top selling products within 10 categories that contribute the most sugar to the diets of children up to 18 years of age. They have three options to help them do this – reduce sugar levels (reformulation), provide smaller portions, or encourage consumers to purchase lower or no sugar products.

Progress is also reported on the drinks covered by the government’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), which shows retailers and manufacturer have reduced sugar by 11% and average calories per portion by 6% in these products and consumers are buying more drinks that have sugar levels below the SDIL cut-off of 5g per 100g.

Duncan Selbie, chief executive at PHE, said: “We have seen some of the food industry make good progress, and they should be commended for this. We also know that further progress is in the pipeline. However, 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.”

Steve Brine, Public Health minister, said: “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.”

PHE has also published new guidelines for the drinks industry to reduce the amount of sugar children consume through juice and milk-based drinks, which are currently excluded from the government’s SDIL. The exemption of milk-based drinks will be reviewed by the Treasury in 2020, and by mid-2021, the drinks industry is encouraged to reduce sugar in juice-based drinks (excluding single juice) by 5%, cap all juice-based drinks (including blended juices, smoothies and single juices) likely to be consumed in one go to 150 calories, and reduce sugar in milk-based (and milk substitutes) drinks by 20% and cap products likely to be consumed in one go to 300 calories.

Tim Rycroft, director of Corporate Affairs at the Food and Drink Federation, said: “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 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."

He added that the UK’s food and drink companies have been reformulating their products for the last decade 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 said.

“The out-of-home sector must show a greater commitment to engaging with this programme. 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% of total calorie consumption takes place outside the home.”

*Sugar reduction and wider reformulation: report on progress towards the first 5% reduction and next steps. A report prepared by Public Health England, May 2018.

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