Call for UK to bulk up childhood obesity strategy in wake of leaked plans

By Natalie Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Leaked UK obesity strategy documents apparently show a proposed voluntary 20% reduction in sugar by 2020, falling short of the 50% recommended by Action on Sugar. ©iStock
Leaked UK obesity strategy documents apparently show a proposed voluntary 20% reduction in sugar by 2020, falling short of the 50% recommended by Action on Sugar. ©iStock

Related tags: Childhood obesity strategy, sugar reduction, Nutrition

Action on Sugar is urging the UK government to revise its childhood obesity strategy, alleging that leaked draft documents show plans do not go far enough.

It is claimed that the documents – reportedly uncovered​ from David Cameron’s strategy – suggest a voluntary 20% reduction in sugar used in UK foods by 2020. This falls short of the 50% cut recommended by Action on Sugar.

The plan is now said to be shelved until the autumn.

Though the suggested 20% cut is a step in the right direction, the target is not ambitious enough to tackle obesity and will not sufficiently reduce calories in commonly-used products, Jennifer Rosborough, nutritionist at Action on Sugar, told FoodNavigator.

“We need 20% reduction in fat and 50% reduction in sugar across food and drink products to achieve sufficient calorie reduction,”​ she said.

Action on Sugar estimates that, as it stands, the strategy will only reduce calorie intake by around 10-20 Kcal per person per day as a maximum.

"After the farce of the Responsibility Deal where Andrew Lansley made the food industry responsible for policing themselves, it is sad to see that this is just another imitation,”​ said Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar.

“It is an insulting response to the UK crisis in obesity type 2 diabetes both in children and adults. This will bankrupt the NHS [UK National Health Service] unless something radical is done.”

Leaked plans

Beside the 20% sugar reduction, there is no further mention of reformulation, Action on Sugar states.

In particular, the absence of compulsory reduction of sugar in soft drinks is “extraordinary”,​ the action group notes, since it is the main source of sugar for children and adolescents.

This is despite the British Retail Consortium and the majority of UK supermarkets calling for a mandated or regulated system.

Reformulation (via) gradual reduction in the amount of sugar in food and drink is the most effective policy in reducing sugar intake as shown by the very successful salt reduction programme in the UK as led by Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) and the Food Standard Agency (FSA),”​ Rosborough said.   

“It doesn’t require consumers to drastically change their eating habits which can be hard, and targets the whole population – even those who are not health conscious or trying to make healthier choices.”

Action on Sugar believes a 20% reduction in sugar would result in just a 10% overall cut since the scheme is voluntary, not mandated.

The documents seen by UK national newspaper The Times ​allegedly also show that the idea of banning junk food at checkouts has been sacked and there is no mention on plans to reduce salt consumption.

Hopes for restricted marketing and advertising to children also go unfulfilled, Action on Sugar claims, noting the documents “merely says there will be a consultation which is a pathetic response given the billions of pounds the food industry spends on advertising to young children of unhealthy products”.

Measures which are set out in the plan – such as healthy school eating, government institutions, better labelling and advice on how to eat healthily – have not been shown to have any effect on calorie intake, Action on Sugar adds.

Changes afoot

However, the plans laid out in the leaked documents could still change under a drastically changed cabinet led by new Prime Minister Theresa May, an industry expert told us, noting there will likely be a lot of haggling over the plans before they are finalised.

In the wake of Brexit, “there is a chance that it (the strategy) could get scrapped altogether but we hope that Theresa May will revise the recommendations in the current plan that we’ve seen, to align to our earlier proposal to both David Cameron and Jeremy Hunt,”​ said Rosborough.

There is a chance the potential costs of Brexit could be used as an “excuse”​ to delay any further potential costs for food companies such as the sugary drinks levy, she cautioned.

Nevertheless, Professor MacGregor urged Theresa May to revert back with an evidence based policy to prevent childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes.

“This would also be a major opportunity for her to demonstrate that she is being real in trying to help people who are less well off, particularly the socially deprived.

"Furthermore, it is a huge opportunity following Brexit for the British food industry which has led the world in reducing salt to also lead the world in preventing obesity and type 2 diabetes."

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