Public Health England (PHE) has released a report, Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20%, calling for at least a 20% reduction in the amount of sugar in food products in 2020 compared to 2015 to combat childhood obesity. Manufacturers have said that they welcome the challenge.

PHE’s recommendations advocate implementation across all sectors of the food industry, including retailers, manufacturers and the out of home sector including cafes, coffee shops, family and quick service restaurants. This approach was modelled on the UK’s salt reduction program, which successfully drove down population intakes of salt by 11%.

Emulating the UK’s salt reduction program is a strong strategy. Without being prescriptive, this strategy brought manufacturers, action groups and other interested parties together and achieved rapid reductions in the salt content of products. This approach shows that impressive results can be achieved without the need for complex legislation.

Sugar reduction strategies

In order to accomplish its sugar reduction goals, PHE will lead a programme of structured and closely monitored sugar reduction and wider reformulation (including calories, salt and saturated fat). 

Linked to this is the introduction of a soft drinks industry levy, which is being developed by HM Treasury. From 2018, soft drinks with added sugar (excluding pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks) will be taxed based on their total sugar content. However, plans which look beyond sector-specific taxes are more likely to be effective, as they target a holistic change in consumer behaviour which will result in sustainable, long-term change.

Obesity rates have risen in the UK over the past decades, and 63% of British consumers believe sugar has a negative impact on their health. PHE’s pro-active approach will help consumers shift to healthier options, and convince manufacturers to make more low-sugar or sugar-free alternatives.

According to PHE, the foods that contribute most sugar to children’s intakes are biscuits; breakfast cereals; cakes; chocolate confectionery; ice cream, lollies and sorbets; morning goods (pastries, buns and waffles); puddings (including pies and tarts); sweet confectionery; sweet spreads and sauces; and yogurt and fromage frais. Retail sales of these categories totalled more than £21bn in 2016.