An update on sugar reduction

On World Diabetes Day, we reflect on some successful work to transform some of the food and drink we buy and consume as the programme gains further momentum.

It’s obvious that the prevalence of obesity and tooth decay in children needs to be reversed. It is also clear that telling people how to be healthier is not enough on its own, as our environment encourages us to buy more food, more often.

That’s why the industry’s continued engagement in our world-leading sugar reduction programme is integral in turning the tide on our childhood obesity problem.

Sugar reduction programme

The industry’s involvement in our sugar reduction programme is hugely positive. Since we announced our sugar reduction guidelines for the nine food categories in March, we have seen some promising leadership from some of the big players who have a huge influence over what we eat and drink.

We’re still in the early stages of forming our guidelines for drinks outside the scope of the government’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy - milk-based drinks like fancy coffees and milkshakes, and fruit juices with no added sugar. Last week, we met again with supermarkets, manufacturers, coffee shops, pubs, fast food and casual restaurants, and public health charities to discuss the next steps in the programme.

As with the nine food categories – including biscuits, yoghurts, cakes and confectionary – we’re counting on feedback from the industry to help us set a challenging but achievable target. They know their products – and how they are made – inside out, so their expertise and perspective can help inform our guidance, which we will publish in early 2018.

But make no mistake – government expects progress sooner rather than later and there is nothing stopping companies from getting the ball rolling before next year.

We also held meetings last week with industry and charities ahead of our sugar reduction progress report due next March. The report will use commercial sales and nutrition data to highlight progress towards the initial 5% reduction and overall 20% by 2020. This will assess the reductions made by individual companies as well as the products contributing the most sugar to our children’s diets.

The meetings helped to inform how we will manage and set out the data accurately and transparently, so significant progress can be celebrated. We also want companies to help us contextualise the data – for example, if they have any sugar reduction plans in the pipeline that will not yet be reflected in the numbers.

These meetings have raised interesting questions about how success is measured and highlighted where progress could have been better - it’s important to keep these conversations going.

Over the last 12 months, we have seen a shift in the industry’s attitude towards sugar reduction. We saw this reflected in our meetings last week where there was a genuine sense that the industry is finding solutions, doing the right thing and rising to the challenge. Rather than just ticking the boxes, they are embracing the programme.

Christmas promotions

Companies up and down the country are beginning to tap into the Christmas cheer with new marketing and promotion campaigns.

Among many others, Coca-Cola has announced the dates for its 2017 Christmas Truck tour, which will see its trucks roll into towns and cities up and down the UK, giving free drinks to families and young children.

We’re encouraging local authorities to have conversations about how marketing campaigns like this involving free sugary drinks is compatible with bringing down concerning rates of obesity and dental decay in children.

The link between childhood obesity and deprivation is well established and it’s important to note the truck will be visiting some of our poorest areas.

We know many local authorities are committed to improving the health of their children and many specifically to helping address childhood obesity. We are seeing positive action from schools, where healthy eating is embedded in everyday life, and there are local initiatives to encourage more physical activity, use of green spaces and healthy cooking and eating. To really help children and families embrace these positive lifestyles, we need consistent messaging that supports them to make healthier choices.

Christmas is a time where we all tend to treat each other and ourselves and that is to be expected – but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re consuming too much sugar all year round. This is affecting their risk of excess weight gain and chances of tooth decay now. It can also lead to further risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers later in adulthood.

Our environment is already driving us all to eat and drink too much. With our town centres already overcrowded with outlets promoting sugar and excess calories, this is the last thing children need.

Government is committed to making the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and the sugar and calorie reduction programmes a success. In years to come, we are confident we will look back and see these as historic steps in reducing one of the biggest modern threats to our children’s health.

It is important that we address actions that could undermine this vital work, which is why we want to encourage debate and support local areas to make positive choices for the health of their children.

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