Sugar content reduced in food by just 3% in four years - well below target of 20%

Date published: 15 October 2020

Sugar content in food has reduced by just 3% in the last four years, according to a Public Health England (PHE) report – well below the government’s target of 20% by 2020.

In 2016, the food and hospitality industry were challenged by government to reduce sugar by 20% in foods that contribute most to children’s sugar consumption, as part of efforts to tackle obesity.

Yet average overall sugar reduction across all food categories stands at a paltry 3%, with the largest falls in breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fromage frais (13%).

The report also noted there had been "hardly any change" in sugar content in food eaten outside the home between 2017 and 2019 (a reduction of 0.3%).

Consuming too much sugar can lead to weight gain and put people at risk of other diseases like type 2 diabetes, heart disease and cancer. Being heavily overweight can increase also people’s risk of serious illness from coronavirus (Covid-19).

Each year, the NHS spends an estimated £6.1 billion treating overweight and obesity related ill-health. Two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese, and one in three children are overweight or obese by the time they start secondary school.

Sugar levels in chocolate and sweet confectionery remains relatively unchanged, but product sales have increased, PHE says.

The latest report also finds that ‘marginal progress’ has been made in reducing sugar in products purchased and consumed in the eating out of home sector, such as cakes and puddings purchased from restaurants or cafes, although calories in these products have declined.

Change in sugar content in branded goods, 2015-2019

  • Biscuits - down 1.6%
  • Breakfast cereals - down 13.3%
  • Chocolate confectionery - down 0.4%
  • Ice cream, lollies and sorbets - down 6.4%
  • Puddings – up 2%
  • Sweet spreads and sauces - down 5.6%
  • Sweet confectionery down – down 0.1%
  • Yogurts and fromage frais - down 12.9%
  • Cakes - down 4.8%
  • Morning goods - down 5.6%

The soft drinks tax, introduced in 2018 to reduce sugar in drinks to tackle childhood obesity, has been a success, with average sugar levels falling by 44%.

For the first time, sugar reduction in unsweetened juices including smoothies and sweetened milk-based drinks, such as milkshakes, have been included in the report.

Most retailer and manufacturer branded drinks have reduced sugar levels by at least 10% already with pre-packed sweetened milk based drinks reducing sugar by more.

Jo Churchill, Public Health Minister, said: “On sugar reduction, particularly in products like breakfast cereals, yogurts and ice cream, we have achieved some much needed progress. This will make it easier for everyone to make healthier choices, but it’s clear more can be done.

“Covid-19 has highlighted obesity and how important it is to tackle it. Our recent announcement of the obesity strategy includes world-leading measures, such as a TV watershed for advertising food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar, and consulting on how we can introduce a ban online. If more action is needed to support individuals to lead a healthy life, we will go further to help them.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE, said: “Too much sugar is bad for our health and most of us are consuming more than we need, often without realising it.

“We’ve continued to see some progress in reducing sugar in a number of everyday food and drink products and this shows that success is possible through reformulation.

“Yet, overall progress remains too slow. Faster and more robust action is needed to help us consume less sugar, which will help us become healthier and lower the economic burden of obesity and preventable pressure on the NHS.”

Responding to Public Health England’s report Councillor Ian Hudspeth, Chairman of the Local Government Association’s Community Wellbeing Board, said: “It is encouraging to see sugar reduction in some food and drink, including a 44 per cent fall in sugary drinks since the Soft Drinks Industry Levy was introduced, but it is clear more needs to be done faster if we are to tackle childhood obesity head-on.

“It is vital that councils are able to decide how the hundreds of millions of pounds raised from the levy is invested, to ensure that our children get the greatest start in life.

“Councils are uniquely placed given their links to local health, leisure, community and voluntary services, as well as schools to intervene earlier and ensure children stay healthy, active and develop good eating habits into adulthood.

“This includes targeting those areas with the greatest need, such as with oral health programmes, weight management services, exercise referral schemes and offering free or reduced-cost sport.

“This in turn will lead to less pressure on our already overstretched health and care services, saving the country much more from obesity-related treatment in future.”

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