Opinion: the only way to tackle sugar reduction

Progress towards the 20% by 2020 sugar reduction target has been painfully slow. Sara Petersson suggests a way forward.

The food industry has not come close to the 2020 sugar reduction target set in the Childhood Obesity Plan. To my mind, there are only three ways in which this could happen:

  1. cutting the sugar content in food (less sugar per 100g of food);
  2. substituting companies’ products with lower sugar alternatives; and
  3. changing the frequency with which those foods are consumed by the population.

The first two scenarios are dependent on the industry’s involvement, but will not happen voluntarily and can offer only limited influence on our food environment.

For start there is the taste factor. Alongside cost and availability, taste is a key driver for sales. In most cases, reformulations lead to unpredictable flavour and sale changes. Companies are therefore cautious about placing reformulated products on the market.

What’s more, in food, ingredients such as fat, salt or sugar, beyond adding flavor, have a functional role that cannot be easily or cheaply replaced in categories like chocolate confectionery, biscuits or cakes (where sugar is the primary ingredient). Indeed, there are impressive solutions developed by players like Tate & Lyle, but they are all currently expensive, come with laxative side effects or cannot be applied to more than a handful of products.

Another problem is that the ingredients used instead of sugar are ‘foreign’ to consumers and can therefore spark mistrust and rejection.

And finally, current recipe changes lead to minimal change or even an occasional increase in calorie content – which is fundamental in the context of creating a healthier food environment.

So, if a company doesn’t reformulate their existing products, what alternatives do they have to ensure they sell less sugar?

They can change their portfolios altogether and redirect their sales to other FMCG products that are not scrutinized by health advocates and don’t add any sugar to their customer’s diets. That might seem drastic, but last year Nestlé showed it can be profitable: Nestlé sold its US confectionery division to Ferrero. However, that doesn’t eliminate the problem of “unhealthy” foods existing on the market. And to have any chance of success, the obesity plan requires movement right across the industry.

The unfortunate truth is that companies have a responsibility to their shareholders to continually maintain or increase sales. To wit, any conscious decision that will negatively influence growth is a corrupt one in the eyes of capitalists.

So, how about a tax on unhealthy foods? The chief medical officer has just told ministers that tax is an important lever for “tackling obesity”.

In addition to reformulation and diversification companies can minimise the cost of tax by directing it to the consumer through product prices. A recent modeling study published in the BMJ suggests that a 20% price increase of confectionery, biscuits and cakes decrease the population’s BMI by 0.53. “This change could reduce the UK prevalence of obesity by 2.7 percentage points after one year,” the researchers said.

However, excise taxes on food have proved unsuccessful in the past (such as the confectionery tax in Finland or the saturated fat tax in Denmark). One of the reasons why food taxes fail is displacement and substitution – consumers buy other cheaper indulgences, purchase the same items abroad or produce them at a lower cost at home. Another reason for failure is the lack of consensus on what is considered “good” and “bad” food. While sugary drinks are known to have direct negative effects on health the “junk-ness” of food is hard to define as it lies on a spectrum that extends from a Snickers bar and crisps to homemade cakes and meat pies.

I believe that reducing the frequency of consumption and portions of indulgent foods is currently our best start to a healthier future: we need fewer calories (not just sugar) in and more calories out. In addition to financially motivating companies to change, the population must be incentivised to buy more low-calorie and nutritious foods – the most common example being fresh fruit and vegetables.

According to the Public Health England report, the weakest progress in sugar reduction happened within lower socioeconomic classes – which isn’t surprising. Publicity increasing education on what is healthier may have a mild influence on the middle-class at best. However, when it comes to feeding a child cheaply, many of the categories highlighted in the report are still the most accessible.

Alongside fiscal incentives, the government must initiate systematic food education for the most vulnerable social groups. High-calorie food advertisements should be banned in places like sports events or social media, which strongly influence children. Alongside this, sales of such foods should be excluded from outlets such as clothing stores, schools or hospitals. It was interesting to see the chief medical officer focus heavily on marketing of unhealthy products in her assessment this month.

The issue is not that we eat treats when we desire them but that our environment repeatedly bombards us with cues that trigger these cravings. We cannot fight the existence of indulgent foods but instead must promote the more frequent consumption of whole fresh foods – both financially and through education.

Lastly, instead of depending on companies to reformulate their products (and through that influence consumption habits), the government should introduce policies that better control where, when and what food is sold and advertised.

Sara Petersson is an Association for Nutrition associate nutritionist and freelance food and nutrition writer, with a background in nutrition public policies and their relevance to the industry. 

1 Response

  1. Excellent article and a realistic approach to dealing with the issues of obesity and unhealthy diets

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