Action on Sugar campaigners call for urgent government product reformulation regulations

Industry experts from the Action on Sugar, based at Queen Mary University of London, and the Obesity Health Alliance have called on the UK government to enact regulations incentivising confectionery manufacturers to deliver on sugar reduction tackling rising national obesity levels, writes Neill Barston.

The organisations’ plea comes as its latest product snapshot survey reveals popular ‘on the go’ sweet snacks sold in both retail and out of home – showing progress on delivering reformulation of products had failed to make inroads.

According to the results of the groups’ studies, there was a significant variation in portion sizes, and sugar content of popular confectionery segment items, which had served underline the scale of issue.

As part of its response, the government is poised to introduce legislation this autumn on regulating screen and online advertising of ranges considered to be high fat, salt, sugar (HFSS), which has already drawn concern from some industry analysts and experts on how effective such moves would prove.

Significantly, as reported by Confectionery Production, the government’s previous attempt in 2016 with a voluntary approach for industry to reduce its sugar levels failed to deliver – with some product categories actually increasing levels of sugar over the course of several years for which the sector had been challenged to come up with tangible results.

According to campaign group Action on Sugar, and the Obesity Health Alliance (made up of over 40 health charities, medical royal colleges and industry observers), the food industry as a whole needs to take urgent steps given rising rates of child obesity. This is especially in light of the pandemic impact on health and wellness of many families within the UK and around the world.

Furthermore, the group claimed research has shown that reducing sugar consumption to recommended intakes could save the NHS £500 million annually, prevent 4,100 premature deaths and avert approximately 200,000 cases of tooth decay. It highlighted interim studies showing that across the food sector, cuts in sugar levels were only around 3%.

As previously covered by Confectionery Production, the confectionery sector has in recent years made attempts to introduce sugar-reduced ranges, though few have gained major market traction.

These include Cadbury releasing a 30% reduced sugar version of its classic Dairy Milk Bar, Mars releasing a protein-enhanced version of its Mars Bar with 40% sugar cuts, as well as a 30% sugar reduced option for its snickers bar.

Within the biscuit category, Mcvities has also enacted sugar reduction across its ranges. Significantly, Nestlé has also unveiled a no-added sugar version of its KitKat as part of its chocolatory series that was released in Japan, though its flagship Wowsome sugar-reduced bars, which were introduced in 2018 with 30% sugar reduction have been discontinued with a reported lack of sales- which continues to pose a major wider challenge in delivering consumer confidence in reduced sugar ranges.

Government report

Both groups of experts were among the 40 organisations which signed an open letter on 6th April to the Health Secretary, Sajid Javid calling on the government to finally bring forward its Sugar Reduction Progress Report and use the forthcoming Health Disparities White Paper.

In  Action on Sugar’s view, disincentivising manufacturers from producing increasingly sugary products is key to this and recommendations should include regulatory measures such as extending the soft drinks industry levy to the most sugary food categories or introducing a new duty on sugar paid-for by manufacturers, as proposed by Henry Dimbleby in his 2021 National Food Strategy.

Focusing on the cakes and biscuits categories from the previous sugar reduction report which outlined industry targets and progress to date, the new survey showed many ‘on the go’ single serve cookies, brownies and doughnuts remain dangerously high in sugar – with Aldi Specially Selected Triple Chocolate cookie (39g sugar per 80g serve) containing up to ten teaspoons sugar, making it 50% sugar.

That reportedly equates to twice a child’s (aged 4-6) daily limit of sugar and the equivalent of eating 12 custard cream biscuits. This is closely followed by Caffe Nero’s Belgian Chocolate Chip Brownie with eight teaspoons of sugar (31.2g of sugar per 67g serve).

The portion size of cookies also varies considerably from 80g (Aldi Specially Selected Triple Chocolate Cookies) to half the size at 40g per serve (Asda Baker’s Selection Milk Chocolate Cookies), with no uniformity and limited access to nutrition information or front of pack colour-coded labelling on ‘on the go’ products.

Katharine Jenner, Director and Registered Nutritionist at Action on Sugar says: “The vital evidence of progress (or lack thereof) of the sugar reduction programme is being deliberately kept away from public scrutiny. However, it is clear from our product survey that a voluntary approach to reformulation is not working with most retailers and coffee shops failing to make any significant reductions. These sugary products are enticingly placed near the tills and end of aisles for adults and children to grab ‘on the go’ with their daily coffee or sandwich, encouraging over consumption.”

Her views were shared by Caroline Cerny, Alliance Lead at Obesity Health Alliance, who said that ‘not all companies are prepared to step in and play their part with reformulation,’ which she said was required in order to create a level playing field within industry.

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