Public Health England (PHE) has dropped something of a bombshell regarding the impact of the soft drinks levy compared to voluntary actions by food businesses on the reduction of sugar in food. The outcomes have exposed a yawning gap in progress between the two policies and massively strengthened the cause of campaigners calling for the government to take a tougher stance.
A voluntary sugar reduction target of 20% by 2020 across food categories that contribute most to the sugar intake of children continues to display very slow progress. Two years into the initiative there has been a 2.9% overall sugar reduction in retailer and manufacturer products and a 4.9% reduction across the foodservice sector.
The mandatory soft drinks levyhas by comparison delivered a 28.8% reduction in total sugar per 100ml in take-home products and a 27.2% fall in average total sugar content for drinks consumed outside of the home. Consumers have not only emphatically switched to zero and lowsugar products but have been prepared to pay more for them as a trend for premiumisation and enhanced packaging has swept the market.
This latter point suggests that making direct comparisons between the two is not straightforward, but the fact that two years into the reformulation programme the food industry has collectively failed even to reach the first-year reduction target of 5% has once again exposed voluntary measures to criticism.
In an excellent recent article, Nick Hughes of Footprint Premium points to data that suggests the out-of-home sector is failing to ensure that sugar reduction is not having the unintended consequence of increasing calorie content. Average calorie content of single-serve products has increased by 1.8% since 2017, driven by double-digit rises in chocolate confectionery, yoghurts and fromage frais, and breakfast cereals.
He goes on to point out that two years into a comprehensive sugar reduction programme, the total volume of sugar sold in take-home foods included in the reformulation programme actually increased by 2.6% between 2015 and 2018 (equivalent figures for the out of home sector were not available). A marginal increase in population during that period can only explain some of the rise; more influential are simple market forces such as recent summer heatwaves that meant we collectively licked our way through 16.3% more sugar contained in ice creams, lollies and sorbets over these three years.
The lesson from the drinks sector is that soft drink manufacturers recognised the opportunity to carry out wholesale reformulation, backed by the inevitable tax-driven price increases available from the higher price of sugar laden products. It would hardly be surprising if the government gave in to pressure to legislate on sugary foods in the same way as it has done in drinks -unless serious progress is made in the near-term.