Sweet success? Progress made on sugar reduction but PHE sees ‘a long way to go’

By Katy Askew contact

- Last updated on GMT

Progress made on sugar reduction in the UK yogurt sector ©iStock/MarcoGovel
Progress made on sugar reduction in the UK yogurt sector ©iStock/MarcoGovel

Related tags: sugar reduction, reformulation

Fresh research has reveals sugar levels in yogurt on sale in the UK have ‘significantly decreased’ over the last two years – but Public Health England (PHE) stresses ‘there is a long way to go’.

Scientists from the University of Leeds examined product and nutrient information from 893 yogurts available in UK supermarkets and compared this data to a 2016 baseline survey. Their study, published today in in the journal Nutrients, ​found there was an overall 13% decrease in total sugar content.

Biggest cuts were seen in children’s, drinks and fruit yogurts. The number of different children’s and organic products has also decreased since 2016 – 23% and 27% respectively – the research revealed.

Products classed as “low sugar”– containing less than five grams of sugar per 100 grams – increased from 9% of items on sale in 2016 to 15% in 2019.

Researchers suggested the data highlights the potential positive effect public policy measures and recommendations such as the SACN Carbohydrates and Health Report​ from PHE are having on improving the nutrient profile of foods available in the supermarket.

The results of this independent survey are in line with the UK Government’s 2019 findings​ regarding industry progress in reducing sugar.

Yogurt is ‘not a straightforward choice’

While the results were described as ‘promising’ with regard to the UK food industry’s efforts to combat obesity and hit sugar reduction targets, the authors also warned that yogurt is not a ‘straightforward choice’ for consumers seeking healthy food options.
Lead author Dr Bernadette Moore, associate professor of obesity in the School of Food Science and Nutrition​ at Leeds said: “Simply put, lowering sugar intake is the best way to prevent obesity and protect our teeth – particularly for small children – so these are encouraging findings and a good insight into current market trends.

“But recent research has shown a common lack of awareness about how much sugar is in our food. Yogurt in particular has something we refer to as a ‘health halo’, where sugar contents of what are considered ‘healthy foods’ are underestimated.

“Yogurt definitely can have health benefits but ultimately the final nutrient composition depends on the type of milk used and the ingredients added during production, which often include additional sugars and other sweeteners.”

Dairy-free yogurts ‘an unrecognised source of added sugar’

If dairy-based yogurt benefits from a 'health halo', so too do plant-based alternatives.

The UK yogurt market has seen a jump in demand for dairy-free yogurt alternatives over the past two years. Compared to 2016, the number of dairy alternative products has almost doubled, researchers found.

The plant-based products surveyed were ‘quite variable’ in their total sugar content: 37% of dairy alternative yogurts contained less than five grams of sugar per 100 grams but 27% had more than 10 grams of total sugar per 100 grams. In total, 20% listed sugar as the second most common ingredient after water.

“Because dairy alternatives do not have lactose, which is a naturally-occurring sugar, the total sugar content comes entirely from added sweeteners. Generally added sugars are considered to be worse for teeth and health,”​ Dr Moore elaborated.

“Movements such as Veganuary may encourage people to reconsider their eating habits, but it’s important that people are aware that dairy alternatives may be an unrecognised source of added sugar to their diet.

“The question of whether plant-based yogurts provide the same nutritional and health benefits as those made from cow’s milk is currently under investigation.”

PHE: ‘There is still a long way to go’

In August 2016, the UK government set out its approach to reducing childhood obesity. A key commitment in the plan was to launch a broad, structured sugar reduction programme to remove sugar from everyday products.

All sectors of the food and drinks industry were challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute most to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020.

Responding to the research, PHE chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone struck a cautiously optimistic tone.

“Some yogurts can contribute a lot of sugar to children’s diets, so it’s promising that we’ve seen some progress from the sector – but there is still a long way to go,”​ she stressed.

“The food industry has a responsibility to ensure healthier options are available and that our children aren’t flooded by products full of hidden sugars. We hope to see them step up even more to this challenge.”

Market snapshot: ‘A positive change in the UK’s food industry'

Study co-author Eiméar Sutton, who conducted this research while an undergraduate researcher at the Leeds’ School of Food Science and Nutrition, said that the survey is a ‘snapshot’ of the market that indicates a positive direction of travel.

The study found there has been significant product turnover between 2016 and 2019. When pairing matched products by brand and name 40% were considered “new products” as they had not been available in 2016.

For products that have been on the market for more than two years, 32% showed reductions in sugar content and 61% showed no changes. The remaining percent showed very small increases in sugar content. This suggests that a significant factor in the overall drop in sugar across all surveyed products was higher sugar products being discontinued, the researchers noted.
“Some of the changes were already quite positive. For example, yogurts with added cholesterol-lowering plant stanols in 2016 were found to be extremely high in sugar but now we found many were among the top 20 products making the largest reductions in sugar content,”​ Sutton said.

“In many categories the reductions to sugar level were modest and didn't yet meet the 20% reduction target but overall it shows a positive change in the UK’s food industry that may ultimately benefit people’s health.”


'Sugar Reduction in Yogurt Products Sold in the UK between 2016 and 2019'


DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/nu12010171

Authors: J. Bernadette Moore, Eiméar H. Sutton Neil Hancock

Related topics: Science

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