In 2016, Public Health England, the body that advises the British government on public health policy, challenged the food industry to voluntarily cut sugar in 10 categories by 20% by 2020, with a 5% reduction by the end of the first year.
It was widely reported in the media, including in a FoodNavigator article, that manufacturers fell short of Public Health England’s 5% voluntary target for sugar reduction, achieving just a 2% overall decrease at the end of the first year.
However, according to Jack Winkler, emeritus professor of nutrition policy at London Metropolitan University, manufacturers have actually achieved “substantially better” reductions because the PHE report was not based on the most recent data.
PHE collected the information between August and September 2017 yet the soft drinks levy did not come into effect until April 2018, meaning products were reformulated yet were not taken into account, he argued. Although the PHE analysis did say it used information collected eight to nine months prior to its publication, this was not accurately reflected in subsequent reports based on the publication, doing food and drink manufacturers an injustice.
“Hence the PHE report that all this effort had only produced an 11% reduction in sugar within this [soft drinks] category is wrong,” Winkler told FoodNavigator.
The healthy choice has become the cheaper choice
“The [sugar tax] is also doing much better than anyone predicted or claimed, especially in producing price differentials between sugared and no- or low-sugar products. These price incentives will reinforce the long established trend towards lower sugar consumption from soft drinks.”
Winkler also published an opinion in the British Medical Journal, giving examples of the price differences. UK premium retailer Waitrose is now selling 500 ml bottles of Classic Coke at £1.40 (€1.58), and Diet Coke at £1.25 (£1.41), equivalent to an 11% difference. “With bigger bottles, in varying sizes, the difference in unit prices is 38%. The discounts in other retailers are within that range. The healthy choice has become the cheaper choice,” he wrote in the BMJ article.
“There is a positive twist in this story for […] the food and drink industry. They are actually doing better on sugar reduction than the PHE report suggests. It is impossible, at this point in time, to say exactly how much better, but almost certainly substantially better. And that is good news — for public health as well as private business.”
...but are most retailers stocking the healthier products?
Another point that is missing in public discussions, however, is the availability of healthier, reformulated products, according to Winkler.
The Coca-Cola Company, for instance, manufactures reduced sugar and sugar-free versions of its subsidiary brands – Sprite, Dr Pepper, Fanta, Lilt and Oasis – while Nestle recently launched Wowsomes, the first product using its restructured, ‘hollow’ sugar. None, however, has gained wide distribution, Winkler said.
“Consumers cannot buy what is not in shops. Improvement depends not just on what manufacturers produce but on what retailers stock. So assessing the accessibility of reformulated products and smaller pack sizes is an important part of the evaluating the programme.”
Although Winkler believes the UK’s sugar reduction programme will have a positive impact on public health, the battle against obesity is far from won.
While soft drinks can be reformulated without sugar relatively easily, it is less simple from a technical perspective to reduce sugar in other food categories like bakery or confectionery where sugar has other functional roles such as bulking - and the PHE sugar reduction plan covers many staple food categories breakfast cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, desserts and confectionery.
Another cause for concern is the fact that government estimates of sugar intake rely on individual self-reporting, and people tend to underestimate how many calories they consume.
According to the UK's National Diet and Nutrition Survey, the extent of calorie under-reporting is around 34%.
“People are telling the researchers that they eat only two-thirds of what they actually eat,” Winkler said, “which is to say that if you want to know how much Britons really eat, take official statistics then add 50%.”
“The UK needs to reduce its sugar consumption by about two-thirds and I am not optimistic that we will achieve reductions on that scale. On the other hand, any progress on cutting excessive sugar intakes will benefit public health. So we should continue and expand the current programmes for sugar reduction.”
In the policy void left by Brexit, Winkler is calling on the parliamentary Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee for a UK agricultural policy on sugar that takes into account public health as well as production.