Voluntary reformulation is proving more effective than government figures suggest. But only just. Nick Hughes reports.
Food businesses have taken plenty of flack in recent times for their action on sugar – or lack thereof – so the emergence of new data that paints a more positive picture of industry progress will be welcomed by those who believe voluntary measures can still deliver the transformation in diets needed to reverse the tide of UK obesity.
A new study published in the journal Plos Medicine has used “alternative and more comprehensive” datasets than those used by Public Health England (PHE) to assess how the sugar content of foods in the UK has changed since the government’s voluntary sugar reduction programme first began in 2015.
It found the overall sugar content of foods fell by 5.2% from 2015-2018 compared with PHE’s own calculation of 2.9%. This is significant since, if accurate, it means businesses did in fact hit an interim sugar reduction target of 5% by 2018. What’s more, researchers found the total volume of sugar sold during this period fell 7.5% from 21.4g per person per day to 19.8g.
Do we therefore need to think again before writing off voluntary reformulation programmes as a lost cause?
Perhaps not. In a Twitter thread, one of the study’s authors, Lauren Bandy from the Nuffield department of population health at the University of Oxford, wrote that a 7.5% reduction in sugars sold was indeed “not to be sniffed at”. However, on the question of whether it proved voluntary measures were working she was more circumspect.
Bandy noted that just two grocery categories – yoghurts (-17%) and breakfast cereals (-13%) – were responsible for the lion’s share of the total sugar reduction. Removing sugar from biscuits (-6%) was proving trickier, while in chocolate and sugar confectionery there were no reductions at all.
Moreover, when the researchers looked at the top 50 companies responsible for manufacturing the products they found only 24 of them had met PHE’s 5% target for 2018.
This being the case (and since, as the researchers note, companies that made the greatest reductions are likely to slow or pause their sugar reduction efforts), Bandy surmised that the likelihood of PHE’s target for a 20% reduction by 2020 being hit was “pretty low”.
The latest data from PHE does indeed suggest that progress slowed considerably between 2018 and 2019. Its most recent progress report published last autumn, which captures data from 2015-2019, showed just a 3% reduction in sugar from the baseline year compared with the 2.9% fall recorded from 2015-2018. Even allowing for the higher relative reduction recorded by the new research methodology, the rate of progress would still leave businesses well short of reaching that 20% by 2020 ambition.
The kicker, as Bandy pointed out, is that whichever way you look at it, the reduction achieved by the voluntary programme “is nothing compared to the changes we saw over a similar time period in soft drinks” that are subject to the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL). Indeed, total sugar content in drinks sold that are in-scope of the levy decreased by 21.6% between 2015-2018 and when 2019 data is included the decrease had soared to 43.7%.
In conclusion, Bandy wrote the new research “generally shows that voluntary policy is not as effective at triggering reformulation compared to a tax”.
To capture the new data, the researchers combined information on the nutrient composition of foods with food sales data to analyse how the sales-weighted mean sugar content and total volume of sugars sold from foods covered by PHE’s sugar reduction targets changed by category and company between 2015 and 2018.
They studied five categories—biscuits and cereal bars, breakfast cereals, chocolate confectionery, sugar confectionery, and yoghurts—for four consecutive years (2015–2018), including 353 brands sold by 99 different companies. By contrast, the researchers note that the PHE report included only a limited number of companies, there was no indication of the variability between companies, and the data were not peer-reviewed (a process in academia that ensures research is rigorous and robust).
By the researchers own admission there were limitations too in their own approach. Perhaps most significantly, a lack of granularity in the data meant that some high-sugar categories – including ice cream, cakes and pastries – were not included in this study.
From a foodservice perspective, the research contains no fresh insights since out-of-home products were also excluded. Indeed, the lack of verifiable data on foodservice progress has become another stick with which to beat the voluntary sugar programme. In its most recent report, PHE found 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% from 2017-2019. PHE acknowledged at the time that analysis for the sector was based on “more limited data and less comprehensive nutrition information than that used for retailers and manufacturer branded products”, and therefore discouraged direct comparisons.
The case for intervention
The government’s final report on sugar reduction is due later this year (although with PHE in the process of being wound down it’s hard to be confident that results will be published in a timely manner). If, as expected, they show businesses have failed to achieve the government’s 20% target the case for further intervention akin to the SDIL will only strengthen.
The government has already shown – through mandatory calorie labelling and restrictions on advertising and promotions – that it is not afraid to regulate the food sector despite the laissez-faire instincts of some cabinet ministers.
Reformulating products costs money so it would be understandable if investment has been deprioritised by out-of-home operators and their suppliers during the pandemic. But at some point foodservice businesses are going to have to produce hard data to demonstrate progress in reducing sugar levels in products or risk voluntary measures being jettisoned in favour of fiscal alternatives.
The latest research suggests that the narrative of failing voluntary measures needs tweaking slightly, but there is not yet a compelling case for a full rewrite.