By Mhairi Brown, Policy Coordinator, Action on Sugar
It’s a new year, and a new decade to boot, and once again the UK has a new government in place, pledging to deliver where previous administrations have failed. Poor diet is now the leading risk factor for ill health and early death, but putting in place simple policies to improve the quality of our food could easily prevent this. One ongoing policy is the Government’s sugar reduction programme.
As this week is Sugar Awareness Week, we are taking a closer look at why the sugar reduction programme is needed, what it involves and the progress it has made.
Why do we need a sugar reduction programme?
One fact I’m sure we can all agree on is that once sugar has been added to products, it can’t be taken out. Therefore, one of the most effective ways to reduce how much sugar we all eat is by ensuring that unnecessary levels of sugar aren’t added to food and drink. There may be those that say everyone has the ability to make a healthy choice. But once we factor in the cost and poor availability of healthy food, the relentless tide of marketing and promotions of sugary foods, the time available to cook fresh food at home all the time, the layout of our supermarkets which put sugary products by the door or at the end of aisles to catch our attention, patchy nutrition labelling, misleading nutrition claims on product packaging, … that ‘choice’ starts to feel like a mirage.
By setting targets for the levels of sugar allowed in certain products and encouraging the food industry to slowly reduce sugar levels in their products to meet those targets, government can help ensure that the nation is reducing their sugar intake without turning their backs on their favourite food and drinks.
That may sound too good to be true, but it happened with salt! The salt content of more than 80 categories of food, including bread, sauces, snacks and ready meals has slowly been reducing since voluntary salt targets were set in the early 2000s. Salt levels dropped by up to 50% in many food products over 10 to 15 years and as the salt levels were gradually reduced, no one noticed and food companies didn’t see a loss in sales. The nation’s average daily salt intake fell, along with their blood pressure, which had a huge impact on health and led to a fall in deaths from stroke and heart disease.
This model was the basis of the UK’s sugar reduction programme, which when first announced in 2015 was a pioneering programme and a world first. Government challenged the food industry to reduce sugar levels in the food and drink commonly consumed by children, with an overall 20% reduction between 2016 and 2020.
The reality has not quite lived up to the promising vision. This may be because the sugar reduction requested was not gradual, with industry expected to make a 5% reduction in the first year of the programme alone. On average, industry have only managed a 2.9% reduction, which is the average reduction based on the products sold in the UK, between 2015 and 2018. As it is a voluntary programme, participation is not mandatory and around two thirds of brands chose not to reduce sugar in their products, or actually increased sugar levels.
Many companies chose to create a new product, labelled as ‘30% less sugar’ (implying the product is healthier), and then put a large portion of their marketing budget towards selling this product, potentially increasing the amount of the product a consumer chooses to buy and eat. Furthermore, companies are then unwilling to reformulate their main full-sugar products as their new products would lose that troublesome ‘30% less’ claim.
Data from Public Health England shows that the quantity of sugar bought in the form of sweet confectionery increased slightly between 2015 and 2018. Unsurprising, given the abundance of products introduced to the market: Haribo Fruitilicious ‘30% less’, M&S Percy Pigs ‘36% less sugar’, Fruitella Reduced Sugar to name a few…
Additionally, sales of sugar from the chocolate confectionery category decreased by a minuscule 0.3% in the same timeframe, begging the question whether these new products are in fact harming sugar reduction efforts and could potentially be bringing new customers into the category. Dairy Milk 30% less was launched and heavily promoted but a more positive action would have been to use this new formula in all of their products, including Easter eggs, advent calendars and sharing packs of chocolate.
What can be done to ensure better progress?
The time for us accepting that only a few well-meaning companies put healthy options are on the shelves is long gone. All companies must be held to account and if they don’t comply with voluntary targets, then government must be bold and put mandatory targets, with sanctions for those that don’t comply, in place instead.
In the midst of this poor progress, the UK is still dealing with an obesity crisis, with an estimated cost of £27 billion each year, and an overburdened NHS. Tooth decay remains the main reason children are admitted to hospital (to remove their rotten teeth) and type 2 diabetes, once an illness only seen in older generations, is now becoming prevalent in young adults and even children. We deserve better.
#SugarAwarenessWeek 20 – 26 January 2020
For more information, visit actiononsugar.org