Are ministers serious about sugar?

It’s almost impossible to sweeten the latest results from the government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme, says Nick Hughes.

The latest sugar reduction results have been logged and once again the headline is the yawning gap between the success of mandatory versus voluntary measures.

While the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL) has driven a huge reduction in the sugar content of drinks that fall under its scope, voluntary progress on reducing sugar in food categories can at best be described as pedestrian.

With ministers saying more needs to be done, and campaigners demanding that legally-binding targets are set, has the voluntary sugar reduction programme run its course?

Last week, Public Health England (PHE) published its assessment of industry progress over the first three years of the sugar reduction programme towards an overall 20% reduction ambition by 2020.

The results, based on data from 2019, show an overall 3% sugar reduction in products sold in retail and manufacturing (take home) from a baseline of 2015, almost unchanged from a year ago. For the out of home sector, meanwhile, there has been hardly any change in sugar levels from the sector’s own baseline year of 2017 with average content in products per 100g falling just 0.4% during this period.

It would be something of an understatement to say the results compare unfavourably with progress on drinks that fall under the SDIL, which levies a charge on the sale of soft drinks with added sugar content over a certain threshold. Here, retailer and manufacturer branded products achieved a 43.7% reduction in the total sugar content per 100ml between 2015 and 2019 with no negative impact on sales. In the eating out of home sector, PHE recorded a reduction of 38.5% in the average total sugar content for drinks subject to the SDIL.

Notwithstanding the fact that reformulating sugary drinks is generally accepted to be technically easier than foods, it’s little wonder campaigners are sounding the death knell for the voluntary programme. “Apart from the sugary drinks levy, it’s abundantly clear that the government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme is simply not working,” said Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London.

Ministers, perhaps unsurprisingly, were keen to highlight small pockets of improvement. Public health minister Jo Churchill welcomed “much needed progress” in categories such as breakfast cereals and yoghurts where double-digit reductions have been made, although she conceded “it’s clear more can be done”.

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, adopted a more strident tone when she said that 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,” she said.

Both the current and last government have made voluntary sugar reduction a key plank of their obesity strategies; yet the results, the latest of which pre-date the coronavirus pandemic, continue to disappoint. Indeed, rather than reducing the overall volume of sugar sold in the UK, there has been a 2.6% increase since the programme began and no change in sugar purchased per person (the differential being due to a small increase in population size).

In the out of home sector specifically, reductions in the average sugar content of breakfast cereals (-17.1%), cakes (-6.8%) and biscuits (-3.9%) were in part offset by a significant 10.7% increase in chocolate confectionery products. The average sugar content of puddings, meanwhile, increased both for take home and out of home products.

Amid the generally dispiriting results there was some evidence of piecemeal progress by companies. Business-specific data on the average sugar content of products likely to be consumed in a single occasion showed Costa (-10.1%), Greggs (-8.1%) and Caffè Nero (-3.2%) making varying degrees of progress in reducing average levels of sugar.

Success has been greater still in removing calories from single serve products with Burger King, Caffè Nero and JD Wetherspoon each surpassing the 20% target set by PHE, although it should be noted that average calorie content for single serve products remains much higher for out of home businesses than for retailers and manufacturers.

As ever where reformulation programmes are concerned, the data for out of home businesses should be treated with a degree of caution. PHE states that “the analysis for the eating out of home sector is based on more limited data and less comprehensive nutrition information than that used for retailers and manufacturer branded products”; the agency therefore discourages direct comparisons.

Foodservice data as a whole remains patchy. Indeed, data for contract caterers is not presented at all in the report due to a drop in data gathered in year three of the programme, “making meaningful comparisons very difficult”, according to PHE.

Still, there is enough evidence to suggest that voluntary measures are simply not working. The question is, are ministers brave enough to follow-through on their consistent threats to regulate where targets are not being met?

McGregor suggests businesses may welcome the clarity. “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,” he said.

Just last week, businesses including McDonald’s, Unilever and Nando’s urged the government to toughen up proposed rules to eradicate deforestation from supply chains. Their actions, along with Tesco’s persistent calls to make reporting of food waste mandatory, suggest that big businesses are not as averse to so-called “red tape” as some politicians would have us believe.

With just one year left to run on the programme and with PHE due to be axed by the spring, it’s now over to ministers to decide once and for all if they really are serious about sugar.

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