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expert reaction to new report on sugar reduction progress in food industry

A report, published by Public Health England (PHE), gives a progress update on the government sugar reduction programme.


Prof Susan Jebb, Professor of Diet and Population Health, University of Oxford, said:

“This report on progress in the second year of the sugar reduction programme reinforces findings from year one.  The progress to cut sugar consumed from sugary drinks is impressive (-28.8%).  This is a result of reformulation by manufacturers and changes in purchasing patterns.  Overall the reduction in sugars consumed in foods is woeful – a 2.9% reduction since 2015, making the chances of a 20% reduction by 2020 – which is next year – look wildly ambitious.  That said, progress across different categories is mixed, with promising reductions in breakfast cereals (-8.5%) and yogurts (-10.3%), but no real change in chocolate confectionary and an increase in sweets.

“Why the difference between foods and drinks?  Drinks are much easier to reformulate and to swap sugars for non-nutritive sweeteners and thanks to the soft drink industry levy (SDIL) there has been a financial incentive for companies to do so.  Consumers have started to make different choices too as they see the price advantages to choosing low sugar options perhaps reinforced by the discussions related to the SDIL that have highlighted the harms of sugary drinks.  The evidence is clear – the SDIL is working to reduce purchases of sugars from drinks.

“But it’s hard for businesses to take the sugar out of sweets and reformulation is not going to be the answer.  We need a new approach if we are serious about reducing sugar (and calories) from confectionary.  This can’t be left to businesses, we need new policies to persuade people to eat less, or to stop encouraging them to eat more.  Taxes may not be popular, but they work to change purchasing behaviours and we have estimated that the effects of a tax on high sugar snacks will be greater than a similar sized tax on sugary drinks (Scheelbeek PFD, Cornelsen L, Marteau TM, Jebb SA, Smith RD. BMJ. 2019 Sep 4;366:l4786. doi: 10.1136/bmj.l4786.).  Restricting advertising and promotions on sugary foods also holds promise to reduce purchasing.

“Obesity in children and adults continues to increase; harming health and stretching NHS resources.  Reducing energy intake is crucial to prevent further excess weight gain.  Today’s report is important because it shows clearly that urgent action is needed if there is to be any hope of reaching the 2020 target of a 20% cut in sugar.  We need to act now, not wait to fail in 2020.”


Prof Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said:

“Today’s findings are a mixed bag.  The soft drinks levy is a success story and shows that government can make a significant difference when it compels the food industry to act in the interests of child health.

“On the other hand – the results of the voluntary sugar reduction programme reveal the limits of self-regulation.  While there are pockets of progress, industry is largely asleep at the wheel.  It is time for a wake-up call.  One in three children are overweight or obese by age 11 and the food industry has a major role to play in helping us turn this around.

“If industry fails to act for child health, then we look forward to the introduction of mandatory sugar reduction targets in 2020.”


Declared interests

Prof Susan Jebb: Susan was the independent Chair of the Public Health Responsibility Deal from 2011 to 2015, and chaired the Expert Advisory Group on Obesity 2007 to 2011.

None others received.

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