New guidelines setting out the approaches the food industry should take to reduce the net amount of sugar children consume through everyday food have today been published by Public Health England (PHE).

It is thought that around 200,000 tonnes of sugar could be removed from UK diets per year by 2020 as a result.

The guidance sets out the recommended sugar limits for nine food groups including biscuits, breakfast cereals and yogurt, as well as how the reductions could be achieved by the food industry.

The three approaches the food industry can take to reduce sugar are:

  1. Reformulating products to lower the levels of sugar present
  2. Reducing the portion size, and/or the number of calories in single-serve products
  3. Shifting consumer purchasing towards lower/no added sugar products.

Sugar reduction

PHE will judge the success of the sugar reduction programme by measuring the net amount of sugar removed from key food categories. The underlying principles are to encourage the industry to go further and faster in sugar reduction in order to improve health outcomes, but also to give it flexibility in how it meets the government’s challenge.

Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, said: ‘We can’t duck the fact a third of children are leaving primary school overweight or obese and obesity generally is having a profound effect, not just on the costs for the health service, but on the overall health of the nation. Our economy is affected as obesity can lead to long term health problems that result in time off work.’

PHE’s chief nutritionist Dr Alison Tedstone said: ‘Overweight and obese children are likely to carry this health problem into adulthood, increasing their risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and some cancers. Levels of obesity are higher in children from deprived backgrounds. Tackling the amount of sugar we eat is not just a healthy thing to do, but an issue of inequality for many families. If businesses achieve these guidelines, 200,000 tonnes of sugar could be removed from the UK market per year by 2020.’

Public health minister Nicola Blackwood said: ‘This government believes in taking a common-sense approach to improving public health and that includes changing the addictive relationship our children have with sugar.

‘Many companies have already taken impressive steps to rise to this challenge but it’s important that everyone steps up. We should seize this unique opportunity to be global leaders in food innovation.’

Food industry

The PHE guidelines are based on more than six months of detailed engagement with the food industry and public health NGOs. This included more than 40 meetings with food suppliers, manufacturers, retailers and the eating out of home sector, representing fast food, coffee shops, family restaurants, entertainment venues and pub chains.

The PHE guidance confirms:

  • Guidelines for the sugar levels of food are set for the top nine categories of products providing sugar to children’s diets (up to the age of 18 years). Soft drinks are covered by the industry sugar levy
  • All types of sugars are in scope for these categories, with exceptions for the naturally occurring milk sugars in yogurt and an amount of sugar in plain whole dried fruit in breakfast cereals
  • Broad product categories will be used except for the sweet spreads and sauces category where sub-categories have been introduced due to the disparate range of products included
  • 2015 baseline levels of sugar in foods have been established using Kantar Worldpanel and nutrition information for manufacturers and retailers, and NPD Crest information for the out of home sector and publically available nutritional information. Some data have also been provided by industry including some out of home businesses
  • The 20% total sugar reduction target has been set based on 2015 levels of sugar per 100g in product and calculating an average figure that takes into account the volume of sales. This sets out the clear goal for a sales weighted average for sugar per 100g for each category to be achieved by 2020 and provides a figure against which progress can be monitored. This approach encourages businesses to focus sugar reduction on their top selling products with high levels of sugar
  • Sweeteners that have been approved through European Food Safety Authority’s processes are a safe and acceptable alternative to using sugar. It is up to businesses if and how they wish to use them.

Sugar reduction is part of a wider PHE led food reformulation programme. This includes work already underway with industry to encourage progress to meet salt reduction targets developed for 2017.

Later this year, PHE will begin work to scope its approach to calorie reduction, aimed primarily at the food categories not covered by the sugar reduction programme.

After the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition review on fats is completed in 2018, PHE will consider including saturated fat in the programme.