Sugar farce exposes reformulation folly

Campaigners say a failure to hit voluntary reduction targets in sugary foods means tougher government action is needed. Nick Hughes reports.

“The results of this report show continued mixed progress.” As understatements go the government’s final verdict on the success, or otherwise, of its sugar reduction programme took the proverbial biscuit.

Snuck out in December to zero fanfare and more than two years after the programme officially ended, the report found that businesses in the out of home sector recorded just a 0.2% reduction in the average sugar content in products sold between 2017 and 2020 against a 20% target. Retailers fared slightly better with a 3.5% reduction in sales-weighted average sugar content across all categories between 2015 (retail’s own baseline year) and 2020 but they too fell well short of the programme’s overall 20% goal. In this context it’s hard to disagree with health campaigners that the exercise in voluntary sugar reformulation has been anything other than an “abject failure”.

What happens next to reduce the amount of sugar people consume is the question now on those same campaigners’ lips. Charities, such as the Obesity Health Alliance, advocating for mandatory measures to tackle sugar in food have had their case strengthened by the success of the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL). Data shows the sales-weighted average sugar content in drinks covered by the levy was down 46% in 2020 compared with 2015 levels. Compare this with open cup milkshakes – not covered by the levy – which showed a 12.7% increase in sugar content over the same period and the case for ministers pulling the mandatory lever starts to feel incontrovertible.

Turbulent times

The sugar reduction programme and subsequent results’ analysis have been running during a period of upheaval for UK public health policy. The programme transferred from Public Health England to the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID) on October 1st 2021 after the former organisation was disbanded during the pandemic.

Following a 2020 Boris Johnson-inspired obesity strategy that was relatively high on ambition and intervention compared with previous iterations, ministers have since rowed back on policies to curb junk food promotions and advertising. What this means for sugar and other reformulation programmes covering salt and calories is as yet unclear, albeit the direction of travel away from interventionist policies towards a lighter-touch approach appears fixed for now (the Department of Health and Social Care had not provided a response to questions over the future of the voluntary reformulation programmes by the time Footprint went to press).

As for what explains the abject performance of businesses in reducing levels of sugar in common foods such as biscuits, puddings and ice-creams there are some mitigating factors to consider. Chief among these from a foodservice perspective is the covid-19 pandemic which, as OHID’s report alludes to, is likely to have hampered reformulation efforts towards the end of the programme period as the focus of businesses turned to survival.

The quality of data generated on foodservice sugar levels has also been poor, meaning comparisons over time should be treated with caution (as OHID points out throughout its analysis). Chocolate confectionery, sweet confectionery, breakfast cereals, and yoghurt and fromage frais were excluded from the final report as the 2020 data could not provide reliable comparisons to the 2017 foodservice baseline. In fact, the total volume of data collected on out of home products actually fell over the duration of the sugar programme. This is because in the final year there was no request made to businesses to proactively provide data – in part due to a desire not to place extra burdens on operators during the pandemic. Instead, all nutrition data was pulled from business websites meaning no data was collected for contract caterers (which don’t routinely display menu information online). What we’re left with is essentially a snapshot of the reformulation carried out by leading food-to-go brands such as Costa Coffee, Starbucks, Krispy Kreme and McDonald’s; useful of itself but hardly a comprehensive catalogue of sugar levels across a diverse and fragmented sector.

Technical challenges

Across the food industry as a whole, representatives point to technical challenges in reformulating products as part of the reason why the 20% overall target was always going to be too stretching. Andrea Martinez-Inchausti, British Retail Consortium (BRC) assistant director for food, told The Grocer the target was “unmanageable and unachievable” especially in categories such as chocolate and confectionery where removing sugar would change the nature of the products (reformulation is technically easiest in soft drinks where sugar can more readily be substituted for sweeteners without impacting product stability and mouthfeel). She added that a headline focus on average sugar reduction masked the fact that some BRC members had achieved an absolute reduction of more than 20% for some product categories.

Within foodservice there were some pockets of positive progress too. The sector overall reduced average sugar in cakes by 8.2% and in morning goods by 3.5%. Open cup hot or cold drinks showed a decrease in sugar content of 10.2% while sugar in blended juice drinks fell by 9.4%. Data breaking down progress by individual brands meanwhile reflected positively on Costa Coffee, which delivered an overall 12.1% reduction in average sugar, and to a lesser extent Greggs which reduced sugar content across analysed products by 5.6%.

Success stories

Beyond its formal data collection exercise, OHID also invited businesses to share specific examples of their sugar reformulation success stories. Caffè Nero reported that in 2019 the syrups used in its iced milk based beverages were reformulated achieving an average sugar reduction of 20% across the range, while in April 2020 its vanilla milkshake recipe was changed to reduce the sugar content from 15g to 12g sugar per 100ml.

Bidfood, meanwhile, said that it delivered a 31.7% reduction in sugar per 100g across three recipes from its ‘everyday favourites’ cake range through reformulation and a reduction in portion size. Five recipes from its gateau range were also reformulated achieving an 18.7% reduction in sugar.

These examples show what is possible but they can’t disguise the overall failure of the programme to substantially cut the amount of sugar in everyday food products. Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said that while the report showed the food industry is capable of reducing sugar levels in certain foods, “it makes it abundantly clear that a voluntary reformulation approach simply does not work”.

Mandatory measures

Campaigners are now calling on the government to replicate the success of the SDIL by considering mandatory measures for foods. “We hope lessons have been learned from this vital monitoring of food industry activity […] and that ministers now fully understand that insufficient progress has been made and that alternative levers are needed,” said Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance.

The programme’s failure also calls into question the future of other voluntary reformulation programmes for salt and calories. First proposed as part of the government’s 2016 obesity plan, the calorie reduction programme challenges retailers and manufacturers to reduce calories by up to 10%, and the out of home sector to reduce calories by up to 20% by 2024 against a 2017 baseline. Guidelines and baselines were published in 2020 with a first progress report slated for 2022, however nothing has been published to date.

The latest iteration of the salt reduction programme meanwhile challenges all sectors of the food industry to reduce the salt content in foods across more than 100 food groups that contribute most to people’s salt intakes. New targets were published in 2020 to be achieved by 2024. Once again, a progress report was planned for 2022 but is yet to be published.

Obesity costs the NHS £6bn annually, a figure expected to rise to £9.7bn by 2050 according to government estimates. The latest evidence suggests voluntary reformulation schemes will do little to ease the physical or financial burden of obesity-related ill health. 

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