The food industry has cut out only 3% of sugar from supermarket, cafe and restaurant products over the last three years, according to a damning report from Public Health England that has triggered calls for taxes or other compulsory measures to be introduced.
PHE launched its flagship sugar reduction programme in 2016 with a mission to help reduce childhood obesity levels by introducing a voluntary target for the food industry to remove 20% of sugar by 2020. But the third year of data, gathered before the coronavirus outbreak – suggests the target is unattainable without a “big stick” such as taxation.
A levy on sugar in soft drinks has been a success, however. The PHE report says sugar levels in lemonades, colas and other soft drinks have fallen by 44% since 2015, with many companies taking out sugar to avoid the tax.
But while sugar content in breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fromage frais has come down by about 13% since 2015, there is “little or no reduction” in many other food categories, says PHE. Sugar levels in chocolates and sweets are unchanged and sales have gone up, so the total amount of sugar being bought in those two confectionery groups has risen by 16% and 7% respectively. Sugar content in puddings has risen by 2%.
“Overall there has been hardly any change in the simple average sugar content from 24.6g per 100g at baseline (2017) to 24.5g per 100g in year 3 (2019),” says the report.
The poor results will dismay the government, which has committed to tackling obesity following Boris Johnson’s encounter with Covid-19, which he believes was exacerbated by his weight.
“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,” said the public health minister, Jo Churchill.
“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.”
Alison Tedstone, the chief nutritionist at PHE, said progress overall was 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,” she said.
Johnson has in the past been strongly opposed to taxes and compulsion as a way to change people’s eating and drinking habits. In June last year, he came out against PHE’s plans to include milk-based drinks in the sugar levy. He said he was opposed to any “milkshake tax”, which he said would “clobber those who can least afford it”.
PHE’s report shows that including milky drinks in the voluntary measures alongside unsweetened juices and smoothies from 2017 has had an effect. “Most retailer- and manufacturer-branded drinks have reduced sugar levels by at least 10% already, with pre-packed sweetened milk-based drinks reducing sugar by more than a fifth (22%),” it says.
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. Each year, the NHS spends an estimated £6.1bn treating overweight and obesity related ill-health, says PHE.
Caroline Cerny, of the Obesity Health Alliance, called for tougher action. “It’s clear from this report that the food industry is unable or unwilling to reformulate voluntarily and it’s now time for a different approach,” she said.
Prof Graham MacGregor, the chair of Action on Sugar, called for mandatory sugar and calorie-reduction targets, pointing out that the sugar reduction in the last year alone was only 0.1%. “Apart from the sugary drinks levy, it’s abundantly clear that the government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme is simply not working,” he said.
Diabetes UK called for the government to be brave and bold. “Clearly, the government’s voluntary approach is not working,” said Helen Dickens, an assistant director of policy. “The government has recently committed to a new, bold obesity strategy, but it didn’t contain any new commitments around cutting sugars and their actions in this area, thus far, have been insufficient.”
The Food and Drink Federation’s chief operating officer, Tim Rycroft, hailed the progress that industry had made in cutting sugar in milky drinks, “showing once again voluntary action by industry works when realistic goals are set”. He said FDF members’ products “now contribute 11% fewer calories, 11% fewer sugars and 14% less salt to the average shopping basket,” and the PHE’s ambitious targets would not be met overnight.