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Where next for voluntary reformulation programmes?

As a new report shows precious little progress on calorie reduction the pressure grows on ministers to take a more hard-line approach. Nick Hughes reports.

A pattern of failure is being repeated that casts doubt over the future of voluntary food reformulation programmes. A little over a year after campaigners decried the abject failure of the government’s sugar reduction programme, its sister programme targeting calories has similarly failed to shift the dial. Interim results for the government’s calorie reduction programme published last month found limited progress in removing calories from food sold for consumption both in and out of the home between 2017 and 2021. 

For the out of home sector, the data showed an increase in the number of calories per serving in four of the five categories assessed – main meals, pastry products, sandwiches, and starters and side dishes – of between 1% to 2.3%. The target is for a 20% reduction by 2024 in average calories contained in main meals, starters and pastry products and 5% for sandwiches.

Pizza was the only food category to show a decrease in the average number of calories per serving of 3.9%, versus a 20% target, equivalent to around 45kcal. There was also a small fall of 0.9% in the average calories per serving of children’s meal bundles against a 10% target by 2024.

Retailers and manufacturers fared little better with four out of six categories showing an increase in sales weighted average total calories per 100g of product. Only crisps and savoury snacks (-0.6%) and garlic or cheesy bread (-2.4%) showed a small decrease on this metric, albeit well short of their respective 5% and 10% targets.

The government said it expects to see greater improvement when the next assessment is published, suggesting it has not given up on voluntary programmes just yet. Health experts, however, have seized on yet another set of disappointing results to sound the death knell for voluntary initiatives. “These numbers should not be taken lightly,” says Ali Morpeth, chair nutrition & food at Children’s Alliance. “We need to both mandate the existing government commitments and also supplement them with other policy levers that will help ratchet improvements to food environments to head off the crisis of food related ill health.”

Mandatory targets

Nesta, a charity focused on designing innovation for social good, has called on the UK government to implement mandatory health targets to incentivise the UK’s largest 11 grocery retailers to offer healthier food options. New modelling by Nesta shows that setting a target healthiness score for the grocery market as a whole could reduce calorie purchases by around 80kcal per person per day.

Responding to Nesta’s assessment, Alison Tedstone, chair of the Association for Nutrition and former chief nutritionist at Public Health England (PHE), said that despite the efforts of some companies voluntary government programmes had not improved the healthiness of shopping baskets. “Some large companies have ignored current voluntary reformulation targets, marketed and sold more unhealthy products. A move to mandatory targets is the right approach. It will incentivise companies to make and sell healthier food,” Tedstone said.

Calorie focus

The origins of the calorie reduction programme date back to 2016 and the original childhood obesity strategy which stated the government’s intention to set targets to reduce calories in a wide range of food products. The now defunct PHE (since replaced by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities (OHID)) published an action plan in 2018 with an initial ambition for a 20% calorie reduction to be achieved by 2024 across all sectors of the food industry. That 20% figure was revised downwards following pushback by businesses and the final calorie reduction guidelines for the food industry were published in September 2020.

Mitigating factors

The progress report only covers the baseline period of September 2017 until September 2021 when the calorie programme was officially just one year old. OHID notes that the data used for its assessment was collected relatively soon after publication of the final targets, providing some degree of mitigation for a lack of progress by businesses. Yet it also points out that businesses had been aware of the reductions they would likely be required to deliver following publication of the draft action plan in March 2018 and were urged at the time to start taking action and not wait for publication of the final guidelines.

The period covered by the data also does not account for the impact of calorie labelling legislation for out of home businesses which came into force in April 2022 and requires companies employing more than 250 people to provide customers with calorie information at the point of choice. The next set of calorie data should provide a strong sense for whether the legislation has inspired the kind of reformulation seen in products affected by the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL) for which average sugar content fell by 46% in 2020 compared with 2015 levels as businesses took steps to avoid the levy.

In light of the slow progress on calories, OHID has announced that the deadline for hitting the targets has been pushed back a year until 2025. Businesses will also be given until 2025 to meet the 20% sugar reduction goal after both foodservice operators and retailers fell well short of hitting the target when the final results were published in December 2022.

The government warned businesses it is willing to explore other policy levers if progress is not made. Yet this threat looks somewhat empty given ministers’ ongoing reluctance to enact current obesity policies such as a bans on volume promotions for foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) and on advertising unhealthy foods to children on TV and online.

Morpeth called on the government to deliver on existing commitments not yet implemented as well as introduce further fiscal measures that incentivise the sale of healthier food and drink, building on the success of the SDIL.  

Business transparency

Unlike with its sugar reduction report, the government did not provide specific examples of businesses who had made meaningful progress on calorie reduction when it published its latest update. Certain businesses have sought to provide this transparency themselves. Compass Group UK & Ireland, for example, noted in its recently published climate transition plan how reformulating recipes for health had gone hand-in-hand with reformulating for a lower climate impact. Compass said its Eurest business had reduced total calories by 1.9 million across its 12 top selling meals at the same time as achieving an average saving per portion of 1.39kg CO2 e across 209,029 meals sold every year.

Meanwhile, KFC last week published its first ever nutrition progress update report, the purpose of which, according to the fast food chain, is “to be open and transparent about our food”. It reported that 77% of its menu items currently meet government guidelines for the average number of calories per portion recommended for products in the eating out of home categories with 100% of products meeting targets for maximum calories. A fillet burger meal, for example, contains 750kcal versus an average guideline of 860kcal (the industry-wide average for 2017-21 was 1,060kcal).

Salt stalls

Whether such transparency will be enough to head off mandatory targets remains to be seen. Salt is another nutrient where businesses have been set voluntary reduction targets across a range of common products, many of which are also covered by the calorie programme. The current set of targets (the fifth in total since work on salt reduction began in the UK in 2004) was published in September 2020 to be achieved by 2024. PHE said at the time that a report on the industry’s progress towards meeting the 2024 targets was anticipated in 2022 but two years on that update has yet to materialise.

Campaigners have filled the void by accusing the cheese sector specifically of failing to take salt reduction seriously. Research published last month by Action on Salt found no progress has been made during the past decade in reducing salt in this category of food. In 2012, the average salt content of cheddar and similar cheese was 1.68g/100g, compared to 1.70g/100g in 2023, according to the research group based at Queen Mary University of London. The study also found that cheeses with the highest level of salt were plant-based, averaging 1.91g/100g, prompting the group to call for an immediate review of the current salt targets which exclude plant-based cheese alternatives.

UPF focus

More generally, efforts over time to target specific nutrients for reformulation have failed to turn the tide on obesity, rates of which have doubled since the 1990s. All the while a growing body of research into the harms caused by the group known as ultra-processed foods (UPFs) suggests that the act of processing itself, rather than the product formulation, is at the root of the problem since evidence linking UPFs with poor health outcomes relates to dietary patterns not individual food products. This has led to calls for a clampdown on all UPFs regardless of their specific nutritional profile. Speaking at a recent House of Lords Select Committee inquiry into diet, health and obesity, professor of genetics and author, Tim Spector, called for UPFs to make up no more than 10% of the food served in government funded institutions like schools and hospitals.

In this context, perhaps the question policy makers should be asking themselves following this latest setback is not whether voluntary reformulation of food products has run its course, but whether reformulation itself is even the answer?