Food industry ‘asleep at the wheel’ on cutting sugar

posted by Charlie Hart
24 September 2019

Overall sugar consumption in England has increased despite targets to reduce sugar in food, according to Public Health England (PHE).

In a report, PHE revealed overall sugar consumption of those living in England had increased by 2.6% since 2015, even though there has been progress against targets to reformulate sugary foods.

The sugar reformulation programme, set out by PHE in 2015, aimed to reduce the average sugar content in food and drink by 20% by 2020. The British Dietetic Association (BDA) warned there had been a “worrying lack of progess” and the 20% target is unlikely to be met. 

In its second report into sugar reduction, PHE found there had been progress towards sugar reduction targets within specific food categories, such as yoghurt and fromage frais (down 10.3%) and breakfast cereals (down 8.5%).

However, amounts of sugar used by manufacturers in foods such as puddings (up 0.5%) and sweets (up 0.6%) had increased since the sugar reduction targets were set. 

The report found there had been a 28.8% reduction in sugars in fizzy drinks since the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, which came into effect in April 2018.

Manufacturers are forced to pay a levy to the government if they fail to reduce excessive calories in fizzy drinks.

Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said: “The results of the voluntary sugar reduction programme reveal the limits of self-regulation. While there are pockets of progress, industry is largely asleep at the wheel. It is time for a wake-up call.”

Following the report, medical associations have called for the introduction of a similar levy for other foods and drinks to force manufacturers to reduce sugar.

BDA deputy chief executive Sue Kellie said: “It is disappointing that there is so much variation between both 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.

“By comparison, the compulsory soft drinks industry levy has driven a significant reduction, with the average sugar content of drinks reduced by 28.8%. We hope the government will consider whether a compulsory approach in other food and drink categories could drive much faster change.”

In August 2019, campaign groups Action on Sugar and Action on Salt called for a calorie tax which targets the amount of fat in foods as well as sugar. It said fat and sugar reformulation in products could result in a much larger reduction in excess calories to reduce obesity.

Earlier this year, prime minister Boris Johnson said the government would carry out a review into the effectiveness of “stealth sin taxes” following the circulation of a green paper which proposed extending the sugar levy to milk drinks.

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