Sugar reduction setback: UK gov finds voluntary program failing as health groups call for mandatory targets
05 Dec 2022 --- The UK government’s voluntary sugar reduction program has failed to deliver substantial industry progress, according to its official report for 2015-2020, which was released a year later than expected. Organizations are now calling on the private sector to accelerate its sugar reduction efforts while questioning the effectiveness of a voluntary program rather than regulatory implementations.
“It seems that the current government in the UK does not wish to champion public health, and it is unclear for now what the UK’s sugar reduction program will look like moving forward,” Mhairi Brown, policy, public affairs and international projects lead at Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, tells NutritionInsight.
“Various policies, such as advertising restrictions on less healthy food and drinks, have been delayed with the government stating that they want to give the food industry time to get used to the policies. This is despite many years of discussion, proposals and consultations to get to the point of having a policy to implement in the first place.”
The program targeted a sugar reduction level of 20% but only a 3.5% reduction was achieved. However, Sustain – an alliance of organizations and communities working to reach a better food, farming and fishing system – highlights that there has been “some degree of reduction in every category, demonstrating that reduction is technically possible.”
Breakfast cereals were the most successful food item for sugar reduction, followed by yogurts, ice creams, sorbets and lollipops. On the contrary, chocolate, puddings, sweet confectionery, biscuits, cakes and pastries have barely reduced sugar levels, according to Sustain.
“[The results] clearly show that the industry can reduce sugar levels but that the pace of change under a voluntary scheme is far too slow and uneven. It also had no markedly different impact on lower socio-economic groups whose health is hit hardest by poor diets with high sugar levels,” says Barbara Crowther, co-ordinator at the Children’s Food Campaign.
Mandatory versus voluntary programs
The organizations continue to outline the difference in progress that can be achieved between voluntary and mandatory health programs.
Brown explains that unhealthy diets with too much salt, sugar and saturated fat and not enough whole grains, fruit and vegetables are a leading risk factor for death and disability in the UK and globally, and that “the government cannot deny that.”
“Governments worldwide must take decisive action and ensure food systems support health and the environment. We sincerely hope that the UK’s government recognizes that it must go further to ensure the food industry removes unnecessary levels of sugar in our food,” she underscores.
Furthermore, Crowther explains that introducing the mandatory Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL) led to an overall reduction of 46% in sugar levels while not affecting companies’ bottom line. The levy created business opportunities to sell low and no-sugar options while household consumption across all socio-economic groups fell – most clearly for those on the lowest incomes.
She argues that a voluntary program is clearly insufficient to shift the dial on sugar consumption, creating the need for mandatory programs alongside other regulatory measures on marketing and promotion to deliver the needed change.
“A voluntary approach cannot deliver the required progress to make significant and lasting change. Instead, excessive and unnecessary amounts of harmful sugars are added to food and drink products which should and must be reduced if we want to improve the nation’s health,” adds Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance.
Lauding the soft drinks levy
Moreover, Brown reiterates that the most meaningful progress toward sugar reduction has been driven by the SDIL, which has incentivized healthier beverage options while not negatively impacting sales.
“Evidence suggests that the SDIL has been an enormous success – reducing sugar intake even for lower-income people without leading to a decline in sales. The government must now explore ways of expanding this model to fix the broken food environment and make the healthy option the easiest and most affordable option for everyone,” Jenner adds.
Brown notes that another critical improvement area is the reduced sugar levels in breakfast cereals and yogurts, which are popular among children. However, she stresses that the 3.5% reduction against the expected 20% is “bitterly disappointing,” as the goal could have been reached to the benefit of human and planetary health, since prime agricultural land would not need to be allocated to the overproduction of sugar.
Expand the program?
The program was mainly focused on child nutrition and its main sugar contributors. However, Brown says that all products with added sugar should be included to make the reduction program more comprehensive.
Additionally, if the sweetness of the food we eat were to reduce, then the preference for sweetness would also decrease, resulting in less sugar demand and consumption.
“We hope lessons have been learned from this vital monitoring of food industry activity from the Office of Health Improvement and Disparities and that ministers now fully understand that insufficient progress has been made and that alternative levers are needed,” Jenner concludes.
By Beatrice Wihlander
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