Sugar programme ends in ‘abject failure’

The government’s sugar reformulation programme has been branded an “abject failure” after both foodservice operators and retailers fell well short of hitting the 20% reduction target.

The out of home sector recorded just a 0.2% reduction in the simple average total sugar per 100g in products sold between the baseline year of 2017 and 2020, with products like milkshakes showing a substantial increase in sugar during the period.

Retailers fared marginally better but came nowhere close to hitting the 20% reduction target. Between their own baseline year of 2015 and 2020 the sales weighted average total sugar per 100g in retailer products fell by just 3.5% with double-digit reductions in yoghurts and breakfast cereals offset by negligible progress in chocolate confectionery (-0.9%).

The out of home sector showed some progress in reducing average sugar in cakes (-8.2%) and morning goods (-3.5%) but other categories like biscuits, puddings and ice-cream saw sugar levels increase while open cup milkshakes showed a 12.7% increase in sugar content.

The results stood in stark contrast to the impact of the mandatory soft drinks industry levy (SDIL). For soft drinks covered by the levy the percentage change in sales-weighted average sugar was down 46% from 2015 with similar reductions recorded across all socio-economic groups.

Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, said it was no surprise the voluntary programme was an “abject failure” due to a lack of enforcement. 

"Whilst this new report shows that the food industry is capable of reducing sugar levels in food with good progress in breakfast cereals and yoghurts, it makes it abundantly clear that a voluntary reformulation approach simply does not work.”

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 from the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities 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.

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