OOH ‘hidden sugar’ leads to calls for mandatory labelling

Another day, another analysis of the unhealthy offerings in the UK’s out of home (OOH) sector.

What’s the story? Action on Sugar surveyed 191 products from restaurants, cafés and takeaways (including 94 crepes, 12 pancakes, 16 pretzels and 69 waffles and their toppings).

What did they find? A lot of sugar. Almost half (42%) of the 105 products that had nutrition labelling either in-store or online would get a red label for high sugar content in the traffic light system used by many retailers, and endorsed by the Food Standards Agency.

What about the rest? Good question. Chains including Creams, Kaspa’s Desserts, Snowflakes Gelato, The Breakfast Club, Wafflemeister, Auntie Anne’s and Mr. Pretzels had no nutritional information available on menus.

Ah, is that what you mean by hidden sugar? Exactly. So AoS took 35 samples to its lab and found even more sugar. The Breakfast Club’s “Beauregarde pancake” for example had 100g per serving, whilst Mr. Pretzels’ Nutella pretzel had 53g. Meanwhile, a “Waffle: Oreos on min with gelato” from Creams had 77g of sugar per serving. The fact these products are loaded with sugar isn’t perhaps surprising, but it makes offering up the information all the more important, said the campaigners.

Aren’t companies labelling things, then? Only 70 of the 191 products (37%) had nutrition information available, according to AoS. That’s actually more than expected: research by the Department of Health and Social Care showed that as few as a quarter of OOH businesses in the UK provide calorie labelling. Even those that are offering information sometimes only do so online, or make it confusing – for example, nutrition information on pizzas can be “per slice” even though consumers are buying a whole pizza. “If companies continue to hide their nutrition information, there is little hope for consumers to find the healthier options,” said AoS’s registered nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem. “It is absurd that supermarkets are forced to be as transparent as possible about what they put in their products, from allergens to calories, but when eating out we often have no idea what is in our food and drink.”

So supermarkets are the good guys, then? Not necessarily. Pre-packaged food has to have certain nutrition information, including the amounts sugar, fat, salt and so on. Putting this on the front the pack using the traffic light system is voluntary. Still, the supermarkets seem to be better at producing products with less sugar. AoS also analysed 84 crepes, waffles, pancakes and pretzels sold in supermarkets, and they contained “far less calories, sugar and salt” in comparison to examples to the OOH samples. Even the most sugary waffle sold in a supermarket had less than a quarter of the calories of the sweetest waffle sold OOH.

Why is supermarket stuff less sweet? One theory is that the supermarkets are being forced to reformulate, thanks to the government’s childhood obesity strategy. The strategy includes a sugar reduction programme, which aims to reduce the overall sugar in products by an average minimum of 20% by 2020, focusing on sectors contributing to the main sugar intake amongst children. This includes a “morning goods” category, comprising of pancakes, waffles and crepes (plus other things likes bagels and croissants), but not pretzels. The first analysis of progress against the targets showed morning goods produced by manufacturers and retailers had slightly more sugar than OOH. The baseline for OOH morning goods was set at 15.9g of sugar. However, due to “data limitations” it wasn’t possible to determine whether firms had managed to remove any sugar from their products. Apparently, we should know more in the next progress report – which should be out very soon.

It all seems a bit shady. The results of the survey certainly won’t help those pushing back against mandatory nutrition labelling OOH. UKHospitality, for example, is very critical of the UK government’s plans to introduce mandatory calorie labelling on OOH menus. There are certainly pros and cons, and the evidence to show the labels make a difference is sparse. However, Scotland is set to crack on regardless. In August, the government’s advisors at Food Standards Scotland said the country’s OOH sector “lags behind the retail food sector in the provision of nutrition information to help consumers make informed choices. However, given the amount we now eat out, we believe that consumers have a right to know about the calories that are in the foods they purchase OOH.” As such, it said calorie labelling is “an essential first step in the provision of information for consumers eating OOH”. FSS also wants to work with the industry to develop an agreed voluntary standard for the provision of full nutritional labelling OOH. Those that feel the approach is far too heavy-handed have only themselves to blame, though. “Industry has had plenty of time to adapt, and it hasn’t,” said FSS.


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