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Supermarkets urged to come clean over sugar

Leading supermarkets have been challenged to publicly disclose their sugar sales and commit to reduce them following the failure of voluntary reformulation efforts.

The final results of the government’s sugar reduction programme published in December showed that average sugar content of products covered by the programme fell by just 3.5% against a 20% target, while the total amount of sugar sold across all products actually increased by 7% between 2015 and 2020.

Now, health campaigners are calling on the government to set mandatory reduction targets after research by the charities Action on Sugar and Feedback found that nine out of ten UK supermarkets lack any policies to measure total sugar sales across all their products. The one exception is Morrisons which introduced sugar targets to their nutrition policy in 2018.

The research also found no supermarkets willing to publicly support mandatory reduction targets to reduce the absolute volume of sugar sold across all product categories including bagged sugar.

In a new report the two charities accused supermarkets of ‘leanwashing’, by which they are giving the impression of action while failing to adequately address their contribution to sugar consumption and diet-related ill health. They said supermarkets are playing up their efforts to reduce the sugar content of some of their products to make them lower in sugar or by introducing new ‘low sugar’ versions of family favourites, however this masks the fact that overall sugar sales continue to climb.

They added that the increase in the total volume of sugar sold is “deeply concerning”, and indicates that although reformulation is having some success these gains could easily be outweighed by shoppers simply buying more sugary products overall.

It is not just supermarkets that are failing to reduce sugar in food by meaningful amounts. Government data from its sugar reduction programme found that 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.

Action on Sugar and Feedback are now calling on supermarkets to commit to publicly disclosing and reducing overall sugar sales by 50% by 2025 and by two thirds by 2030, and for the government to drive this by implementing mandatory targets.