Major manufacturers including Nestlé, Kellogg and Premier Foods are reviewing the details of ‘Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action’ – a strategy published by the government today (August 18) to “significantly reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next ten years”.
Among the plans – which include a previously announced ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks and efforts to make young children more active – is “a broad, structured sugar reduction program to remove sugar from the products children eat most”.
The government is calling on the food and drink industry to reduce overall sugar from products that it says contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one. The document adds that this can be through “reduction of sugar levels in products, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives”.
Industry trade body the Food & Drink federation has critcized the plans for focusing too strongly on the role of a single nutrient, add that the reduction target may be impractical for some food categories.
“Reformulation is difficult and costly: there are different challenges for each product; recipe change can only proceed at a pace dictated by consumers," said FDF director general Ian Wright. "We will do everything we can in the next six months to work towards a practicable reformulation solution while continuing to urge the government to adopt a ‘whole diet’ approach.”
Retailers and manufacturers targeted
All sectors of the industry are being targeted by the plan, including manufacturers, retailers and foodservice operations, and the government has said it "will use other levers" to achieve the same aims if there has not been sufficient progress by 2020.
The program will initially focus on the nine categories that the government says make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes. These comprise: Breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes, puddings and morning goods, as well as confectionery, yogurts, ice cream and sweet spreads.
The government is to look at new ways of flagging up the sugar content of products on pack – including showing teaspoons of sugar.
According to strategy document ‘Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action’, the UK’s recent decision to leave the European Union gives greater flexibility to determine the information that should be presented on packaged food, and how it should be displayed.
“We want to build on the success of our current labeling scheme, and review additional opportunities to go further and ensure we are using the most effective ways to communicate information to families,” it states.
“This might include clearer visual labelling, such as teaspoons of sugar, to show consumers about the sugar content in packaged food and drink.”
Government agency Public Health England (PHE) will advise on setting four-year, category-specific sugar targets per 100 g of product and calorie caps for specific single-serving products. These are due to be published in March 2017.
Measuring reduction progress
Progress is to be measured on the basis of reductions in the sales-weighted average sugar content per 100 g of food and drink (calculated by weighting the contribution of individual products in a category according to volume sales), reductions in portion size, or a sales shift towards lower-sugar alternatives.
Data for 2015 will be used as the baseline for measuring reduction, and PHE will review progress and publish interim reports every six months.
From 2017, the program will be extended to include setting targets to reduce total calories in a wider range of products contributing to children’s calorie intake.
Assessments in 2018 and 2020
Assessments will be made by PHE in September 2018 and March 2020, and the government will use this information to determine whether sufficient progress is being made and whether “alternative levers” need to be used to reduce sugar and calories in food and drink consumed by children.
The document also details plans for the so-call ‘sugar tax’ on soft drinks in the UK, and the said there are no current plans to introduce similar levies or expand the levy to the confectionary category.
“However, the government hopes this levy will encourage the entire food and drinks industry to play its part in developing products with lower sugar content,” it states in an FAQ.
Manufacturers and trade groups have reacted to the publication of the UK government document ‘Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action’, which calls for a 20% cut in sugar levels in a range of categories.
“We strongly believe a cross societal approach is needed to tackle obesity and we take our public health responsibilities seriously.
“That’s why we see our foods as part of the solution not the problem. Our cereals are typically low-calorie, low-fat choices that are fortified with vitamins and minerals and yet only contribute around 6% of the sugar in the nation’s diet according to the government’s own data about what we eat.
“The vast majority of Kellogg’s cereal bars provide less than 200 calories per portion and all our crisps have around 150 calories per portion.
“Given the fact the government’s childhood obesity strategy has just been released, we will now take time to review it in full.”
Federation of Bakers
Gordon Polson, director: “While reformulation is not the only option in the plan, Federation of Bakers members have always taken their responsibilities seriously - look at our track record on salt reduction. But, like salt reduction, sugar reduction is challenging.
“The response cannot be the same across all products. It will depend on the particular product, its recipe and characteristics.
“We look forward to having further discussions with Public Health England before they publish targets by March 2017.”
Food & Drink Federation
Ian Wright, director general: “Food and drink manufacturers recognize our responsibility in meeting the challenges posed by obesity. Government has acknowledged that working in partnership with industry on a voluntary basis is the best way to make progress on this crucial issue. We are committed to that partnership.
“… the target set for sugars reduction in the plan is flawed. It focuses too strongly on the role of this single nutrient, when obesity is caused by excess calories from any nutrient. Moreover the target is unlikely to be technically practical across all the selected food categories.
“Reformulation is difficult and costly: there are different challenges for each product; recipe change can only proceed at a pace dictated by consumers. We will of course do everything we can in the next six months to work towards a practicable reformulation solution while continuing to urge the government to adopt a ‘whole diet’ approach.”
“Tackling the problem of obesity and the excessive consumption of sugar requires a holistic approach and it is time for all of us to engage and take action in finding solutions.
“At Nestlé, we are determined to play a full part in delivering the change that is needed. We continue to invest in research and development to enable us to reformulate our products and reduce sugar.
“We will now be reviewing the Plan and the sugar levy consultation in detail and look forward to working alongside government, NGOs, retailers and the rest of the industry in a constructive and ambitious manner.”
“We are committed to working in partnership with government and others to tackle the problem of childhood obesity.
“We will be assessing the details of the plan and how it affects our business, but in the meantime we remain focused on delivering our own health commitments, which includes the removal of 1,000 tonnes of sugar across our cake, desserts and sauces brands by 2018.”
“As a provider of staple products from bread through to a celebration cakes, we are very happy to engage in initiatives to promote education for the public – we believe education is the key in this discussion and a holistic approach is needed to solve issues around public health."