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NDPH research shows that less than half of leading food brands have significantly reduced the sugar content of their products.

In many countries across the world, average daily sugar intakes vastly exceed dietary recommendations. In the UK, for instance, the average daily intake of free sugars (sugars added to foods or found naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices) is twice the recommended level for adults, and almost triple for children aged 4–18 years.*

Excess sugar intake significantly increases the risk of various diseases, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay. In an effort to reverse this, in March 2017 Public Health England (PHE) introduced voluntary 5% and 20% sugar reduction targets for the food industry to achieve by 2018 and 2020, respectively.

Researchers from the Nuffield Department of Population Health investigated whether food companies are on track to meet these targets. In a study published today in PLOS Medicine, they assessed whether the average sugar content of food product brands had changed between January 2015 and December 2018.

The study used sales data from Euromonitor for the five food categories that contribute the most to sugar intake in the UK: biscuits and cereal bars, breakfast cereals, chocolate confectionery, sugar confectionery, and yoghurts. This data was linked with nutritional information about each product, sourced from supermarket websites. For each year, the study included around 95 companies, 350 brands and 2,500 individual products.

Key results

  • Overall, the sales-weighted average sugar content for all brands fell by 5%, from 28.7 g per 100 g in 2015, to 27.2 g per 100 g in 2018, with the largest reductions seen in yoghurts (−17%) and breakfast cereals (−13%).
  • Only a small reduction in sales-weighted sugar content was seen for sugar confectionery (−2.4%) and chocolate confectionery (−1.0%).
  • Out of the top 50 companies for these brands, 24 met the 5% sugar reduction targets for 2018.
  • For ten companies, the sales-weighted average sugar content increased, due to greater sales of higher-sugar products.

The study was restricted to food products and did not include soft drinks. Cakes, morning goods (such as croissants), ice cream, puddings, and sweet spreads were also excluded due to insufficient data. Consequently, average daily sugar intakes are likely to be significantly higher.

According to the research team, the larger reductions in sugar content for yoghurts and breakfast cereals may be due to recent media attention on ‘hidden sugars’ in products otherwise considered healthy. It may also be technically easier to reformulate low-sugar varieties of these products.

Previous work by the researchers has demonstrated that, over the same period, soft drinks underwent a much greater decrease in average sales-weighted sugar content, by around 34%. This is likely to be due to the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy in April 2018, which imposed a two-tiered tax on drinks containing more than 5 g of sugar per 100 ml. The team’s evidence shows that soft drinks companies responded by reformulating their products to avoid the levy

Lead author Dr Lauren Bandy said: ‘This analysis raises concerns about the likelihood of companies having achieved the more stretching 20% reduction target set by PHE for 2020. Besides companies reformulating existing food products and launching new low-sugar products, additional policy measures may be needed from the UK Government.’ Dr Bandy added that decreasing the sugar content of foods should continue to be part of a wider sugar-reduction programme, including public health awareness campaigns such as Change4Life, and front-of-package warning labels.

 

[* UK daily dietary guidelines recommend that free sugars are limited to 19g for children aged 4–6 years, 24g for children aged 7–10 years, and 30g for those aged 11 years and above.]