‘A mandatory approach may be necessary’: Campaigners slam out of home operators as supermarkets make more progress on reformulation and labelling

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

A new survey has revealed high levels of ‘hidden’ sugar and calories in breakfast options sold through restaurant chains and other out of home channels. UK campaigners are now calling for mandatory labelling and reformulation to spur progress and 'level the playing field' with supermarket suppliers.

Research from Action on Sugar, a health campaign group based at Queen Mary University in London, has revealed ‘excessive’ amounts of sugar and calories in morning goods including waffles, pancakes, pretzels and crepes sold through major high street restaurant chains.

The product survey compared breakfast products available in supermarkets and out of home channels. According to Action on Sugar, it demonstrates that scant progress has been made in the out of home channel despite the inclusion of morning goods in the UK government’s sugar reduction strategy, which aims to combat childhood obesity.

Menus don’t tell the whole story

The group of experts was particularly critical of restaurant and foodservice providers, where minimal nutritional information is supplied to consumers.

They called on UK regulators to enforce mandatory colour-coded nutrition and calorie labelling on menus and online. Significantly, Action on Sugar noted, 43% of the products included in its sample would have received a red label for high sugar content.

Speaking to FoodNavigator, Dr Kawther Hashem, a registered nutritionist and campaign lead, stressed that out of home is less regulated than the grocery sector.

“To be able to scrutinise or pressure companies, you need information about them and transparency from them. The least we can scrutinise as consumers is the nutrition content of the food and drink they sell to us. However, [restaurants] are not required by law, unlike supermarkets and manufacturers to provide this information about their products and most of them opt not to.”

Action on Sugar surveyed 191 products from restaurants, cafes and takeaways included 94 crepes, 12 pancakes, 16 pretzels and 69 waffles and their toppings. Only 70 of these products provided full nutrition information in store or online.

In 2016, Public Health England introduced its sugar reduction strategy with the aim of reducing the overall sugar in products by 20% by 2020, focusing on sectors contributing to the main sugar intake amongst children.

Action on Sugar then commissioned independent laboratory analysis of 35 samples, exposing the ‘alarming levels of sugar, salt and calories’.

Supermarkets show reformulation is achievable

As well as demanding new labelling requirements, Action on Sugar said that out of home chains should work to reformulate products to cut levels of sugar, fat and salt.

The nutritional content of samples collected from the out of home sector did not compare favourably with similar products available in grocery stores.

To provide a point of comparison, the product survey also analysed crepes, waffles, pancakes and pretzels sold in supermarkets. The supermarket research surveyed 84 products. T

The products from supermarkets contained ‘far less' calories, sugar and salt in comparison to examples from the out of home sector. Even the highest waffle sold in a supermarket had less than a quarter of the calories of the highest waffle sold out of the home, Action on Sugar revealed. 

“Since some supermarkets make similar products that also sell well, there is no reason why we are not given better options when eating out. Despite the Government’s childhood obesity strategy, food and drink stands in shopping malls and casual dining eateries are awash with unhealthy options. The out of home sector is constantly pouring cold water on plans to do anything to improve our health,”​ stressed Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar.

Businesses ‘want’ a level playing field

Dr Hashem suggested the ‘leadership’ position taken by supermarket operators has also encouraged their suppliers to adopt measures like front-of-pack labelling.

The leadership of supermarkets has helped manufacturers to adopt a similar label, and they have said that their customers want to see them. It is only by seeing consistently similar nutrition labelling styles can we make comparisons between products and choose the healthier options,”​ she noted.

The UK Government has consistently resisted calls for mandatory regulation of food labelling and reformulation, instead opting for a voluntary approach.

However, Dr Hashem suggested this might not actually be in the best interests of ‘progressive’ businesses who are tackling the issue of labelling and reformulation.

“There will always be some progressive companies that will adopt the suitable approach to help their consumers but they may become disadvantaged against their competitors who refuse to do this unless they are forced to.

“Making it mandatory means we create a level-playing field and fair market environment for all companies and that is what we need. Again, most companies tell us this is what they want and that it has to be mandatory.”

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