UK’s chocolate sector fails voluntary government-backed sugar cutting initiative

A UK government-led initiative seeking to drive 20% voluntary sugar cuts within food product ranges including confectionery and snacks found chocolate to be the worst performing category over five years – managing just 0.9% reductions, reports Neill Barston.

The much-heralded scheme put forward by Public Health England, which last October became the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, examined performance in the sector between 2015-2020 in response to high levels of obesity that has seen one in three children considered clinically overweight.

However, despite some headway being made in own brand and branded goods registering an overall 3.5% cut in sugar (of average total sugar per 100g in products over the five-year period), the sector notably failed in its overall objectives of attaining 20% cuts in sugar across the board. Areas of most achievement were within sweet spreads (revealing a 10% cut, and breakfast cereals, managing a 14% reduction).

The issue of sugar reduction, and product reformulation have remained prominent in the industry spotlight in recent years -with the Food and Drink Federation previously expressing concerns over the cost of implementing adapting product recipes to incorporate less sugar and calories.

Industry insiders have also highlighted the functional role that sugar has typically played in many sweets and snacks ranges – though the sector has made notable offerings available to the sector in recent years – including Cargill delivering 30% reduced sugar chocolate, as well as Barry Callebaut unveiling its ‘Second Generation’ chocolate last month, claiming cuts of 50% sugar.

Significantly, the government-backed report claimed that in spite of targets falling significantly short of its overall goals, that a voluntary-led approach could work – which remains disputed by leading health charities that highlight the comparative lack of progress made.

As previously reported by Confectionery Production, there have been a number of high profile attempts to introduce reduced sugar ranges including Cadbury Dairy Milk bar with 30% less sugar, and Nestle’s now discontinued Wowsome bars, developing significantly reduced sugar options, an overall breakthrough on reducing sugar has proved elusive. Sales of confectionery have actually increased over the past four years (by 16% for chocolate), and 7% for sweet confectionery).

The failure to reduce sugar in products has, according to the government’s latest study, been reflected in the fact there has in fact been a 7.1% increase in the tonnes of sugar sold from the product categories included in the programme between 2015 and 2020. The largest increase was highlighted as an upturn of 26.9 of sugar sales for chocolate confectionery, and 24.5% in sales for sweet spreads and sauces.

Furthermore there has been a 8.1% increase in total volume sales between 2015 and 2020 for the product categories included in the programme, including snacks and chocolate.

Significantly, the latest government study – representing the last of a series of four updates, claimed that the increase in sugar and total volume sales is partly due to the food system being disrupted during the first 6 months of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic (in 2020, resulting in more food and drink being purchased for consumption in the home.

This was partly due to some initial stockpiling and schools, workplaces and most businesses in the out of home
sector either closing or operating differently. It is not possible to quantify how much of this increase was due to the pandemic.

Report reaction

Professor Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt state that ‘procrastinating any further should not be an option,’ in developing a mandatory framework for government policy.

He said: “Whilst this new report shows that the food industry is capable of reducing sugar levels in food with good progress in breakfast cereals and yogurts, it makes it abundantly clear that a voluntary reformulation approach simply does not work.

“The UK faces an obesity crisis and one of the principle plans outlined by the Department of Health and Public Health England was to tackle this by reducing sugar in food products by 20% by 2020 across the main food categories. Not surprisingly the plan was an abject failure.

“Like with the successful soft drinks levy, the food industry wants certainty and direction which is why the Government must commit to measures such as mandatory targets for calories, sugar and salt reduction, enforced marketing and promotions restrictions and clearer, mandatory food labelling,” adding that unhealthy diets high in saturated fat, salt and sugar (which lack fruit and vegetables) contribute significantly to death and disability globally, and costs the UK more than £100 billion (combined) annually.”

In its conclusion the government report asserted that voluntary systems could be maintained, noting that there had been some traction in certain market segments.

However, one of the strongest arguments for presenting a defined legal position has been the success with the ‘sugar tax’ of the soft drinks levy, that has seen a markedly steep uptake from the drinks industry at complying with the required recently introduced codes.

The government report added: “The results presented in this report demonstrate that a voluntary sugar reduction and product reformulation programme can deliver progress, change and innovation. This is demonstrated by the reductions seen but particularly for retailer and manufacturer branded breakfast cereals, yogurts and fromage frais, milk based and Soft Drink Industry Levy drinks; and by some individual businesses and brands.

“Lower reductions are seen in some categories as reducing sugar in some food and drink can be more difficult than others due to the functional role it plays, for example, chocolate and sweet confectionery. In tandem, however, there has been an increase in the sales of some higher sugar products, a previously seen trend that grew further during the COVID-19 pandemic. Taken together, these trends result in more sugar from these products being part of shopping
baskets, compared to 2015. It also means that the sugar reductions achieved in other categories have not been reflected in the overall percentage reduction figure for the programme as a whole.”





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