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This week, Public Health England (PHE) published their first assessment on the government’s sugar reduction programme, introduced to help reduce rates of childhood obesity.

The food industry – including retailers, manufacturers, restaurants, cafes and pub chains – was given the target to cut 20% of sugar from a range of products by 2020, with a 5% reduction in the first year. The first year of the programme was from August 2016 to August 2017.

What does the assessment show?

  • Retailers and manufacturers have achieved only a 2% reduction in sugar.
  • Sugar has been reduced by 11% by retailers and manufacturers in drinks that are included in the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and average calories per portion has been reduced by 6%.
  • New guidelines have been published for the drinks industry to reduce sugar in juice and milk-based drinks.

Importantly, PHE highlight that there are forthcoming sugar reduction plans from the food industry and that some changes of products were not captured in the data (as the changes took effect after the one-year mark measured). This all points towards hopefully seeing greater reductions in future assessments.

Measuring the progress
Ten food categories were measured that contribute the most sugar to children’s diets, although breakfast pastries and cakes were not included due to insufficient data. Some of the key findings from the assessment include:

  • Reductions in sugar levels were seen across five of the categories.
  • Yogurts and fromage frais, breakfast cereals, and sweet spreads and sauces have all met or exceeded the initial 5% sugar reduction ambition.
  • Biscuits and chocolate confectionary have seen no change at all in sugar levels.
  • The puddings category has actually seen a slight (1%) increase in sugar content overall.
  • It has been noted that for the eating out of home sector, portion sizes in products likely to be consumed in one go are substantially larger (on average more than double) those of retailers and manufacturers.
  • Calories in products likely to be consumed in one go have reduced in four categories. Of these, ice cream, lollies and sorbets, and yogurts and fromage frais have reduced average calories by more than 5%. Often this is due to smaller portion size.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) provided an interesting infographic showing how the food industry has been cutting sugar.

In response to the PHE assessment, Andrew Opie, Director of Food Policy at the BRC, stated: “Retailers are fully committed to helping improve the health of their customers and have led the way in reducing sugar in their products. Thousands of tonnes of sugar have been removed from retailers’ own product ranges to date and continuing work will result in even greater reductions over the next few years.

“Retailers have shown that reducing sugar levels across a wide range of products is possible but all food businesses must follow suit if we are to see significant reductions in the level of sugar in the nation’s diet.”

The British Dietetic Association‘s Head of External Affairs, Jo Instone, said: “We recognise that there are limitations in the data and that these are the early stages of the reformulation programme. However, it is disappointing to have such significant gaps and for a number of manufacturers to have refused to allow information on their progress to be published.”

“Clearly, it will be important for the BDA, the Obesity Health Alliance and others to continue working with Public Health England and the government to drive this programme forward. We would hope that the 2019 report can fill in a number of gaps and that we will see more substantial progress made across the board.”

Milk based drinks and juice
Following our concern about sugar levels in fruit juice, we’re pleased to see new plans by PHE encouraging the drinks industry to achieve the following by mid-2021:

  • Reduce sugar in juice-based drinks by 5% (excluding single juice – that is, products with juice from a single fruit with nothing added to it).
  • Cap all juice-based drinks (including blended juices, smoothies and single juices) likely to be consumed in one go to 150 calories.
  • Reduce sugar in milk (and milk substitutes) based drinks by 20% and cap products likely to be consumed in one go to 300 calories.

What’s next?
Some progress has been made, but it seems we’re still well off hitting targets for sugar reduction. It’s clear that more work is needed – by manufacturers and retailers, but also cafes and restaurants, where calorie intake tends to be significantly higher.

The next progress report from PHE is due in Spring 2019 and should give a clearer picture on the programme’s progress.

Of course, this is only one of the many strategies needed to help combat the obesity crisis. Along with the BDA and many others, we’re looking forward to hearing government measures for issues including broadcast advertising, in-store promotions and other interventions to help tackle the problem.

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