Sugar reduction programme ‘needs teeth’

8 October 2020

The UK government has been urged to introduce enforceable measures to drive sugar reduction in food and drink following “disappointing” results from Public Health England’s (PHE) programme. 

Andy Burman, CEO of the British Dietetic Association (BDA), said the voluntary approach to manufacturers and retailers reducing sugar in products was “clearly not working”.

The latest report from PHE found the average overall sugar reduction achieved across all food categories since 2015 stood at 3%, despite a target to reduce sugar by 20% by 2020.

Burman said: “This programme needs more teeth, as the voluntary approach is clearly not working on its own. 

“We need urgent action on in-store promotions, online and broadcast advertising and sponsorship to reduce families' exposure to high fat, sugar and salt foods.

“Government also needs to put in place a plan for what happens next, how it will have enforceable measures to drive sugar reduction and reformulation across retailers, manufacturers, and out of home.”

The third annual report from PHE found progress had been made by manufacturers and retailers to reduce sugar in categories including breakfast cereals, yogurts and fromage frais, which saw a 13% reduction between 2015 and 2019.

Sugar levels in products such as chocolate and sweets were relatively unchanged, but product sales increased, growing 16% and 7% respectively between 2015 and 2019, the report found.

However, the report highlighted the impact of the soft drinks industry in reducing sugar. 

Since April 2018, manufacturers have been forced to pay a levy to the government if they fail to reduce excessive calories in fizzy drinks.

For retailers and manufacturer-branded products subject to the levy, there was a 43.7% reduction in the total sugar content per 100ml between 2015 and 2019.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said: “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.”

Graham MacGregor, chairman of campaign group Action on Sugar, said: “Apart from the sugary drinks levy, it’s abundantly clear that the government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme is simply not working.

“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.”

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