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Campaign launched to reduce sugar intake through processed foods

23 February 2014

In January 2014, Action on Sugar, a new campaign group, was launched to lobby for a reduction in the use of sugar in the food industry. Headed by international medical professionals, the UK-based initiative was started in response to rising global levels of obesity and an increase in the incidence of a range of non-communicable diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes. The campaign aims to build on the success of the Consensus Action on Salt and Health group which “led to UK industry slashing salt levels by 15% in ten years”. The new group is lobbying the UK government “to set four-year targets to gradually reduce sugar in brands by 30-40%”.

In an interview with Confectionery News, Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, maintained that “taking out sugar will make products cheaper to produce”, adding, “We don’t want substitution, just take it out.” Sugar in chocolate “accounts for about 30–40% of calories… while the rest comes from fat” (milk fat and cocoa butter). Professor MacGregor observed: “If you reduce caloric intake, you reduce obesity.”

The high level of sugar in other food products was also highlighted. While the UK government’s ‘responsibility deal’ has already seen “leading confectioners such as Mars, Mondelez International and Nestlé” pledging to reduce the caloric intake in single-serve confectionery, Professor MacGregor maintained that this voluntary approach was not enough, since “it relied on industry taking voluntary actions to prioritize public health interests above their own.” Professor MacGregor suggested that reducing the sugar content of a Mars bar by 30% would reduce the product size, and advocated maintaining the price in order to not to increase consumption. He considered that “if you do it slowly, people’s taste receptors adjust.”

A representative of the Food and Drink Federation maintained that sugars “consumed as part of a varied and balanced diet were not a cause of obesity”. She argued that the food and drink industry “had already worked to reduce sugar in products where this would result in an overall caloric reduction”, and said that existing commitments would require considerable investment in design and securing “consumer acceptance of new recipes”. A representative of Sugar Nutrition UK went further, maintaining that the claims made by Action on Sugar were “not supported by the consensus of scientific evidence”.

However, Confectionery News drew attention to a Sunday Times report that the WHO was considering reducing its recommendation “that no more than 10% of calories in a person’s diet should come from added sugars” to a recommended maximum of only 5%.

Responding to the launch of Action on Sugar, representatives of the industrial chocolate manufacturer Barry Callebaut have called for more attention to be paid to reformulation, replacing sugar with fibre, rather than simply reducing serving size. They argued that reformulation would have a greater impact, since the product would not lose any of its bulk, while the caloric value of the product would be reduced. However, they acknowledged that replacing sugar with fibre would be expensive and would “impact processability…, potentially adding an extra cost to ensure products have the same rheology, taste and texture”.

Some combination of reformulation and “portion size reduction to cut sugar” appears the most likely option in response to the Action on Sugar campaign. 

Editorial comment

The consumption of sugar in food products accounts for around 75% of per capita sugar consumption in the UK. Any moves towards reducing the sugar content of food products would thus impact on the principal market for sugar in the EU. If the UK campaign were to spread across Europe, or be taken up in EU level regulations, then even a 10% reduction in the use of sugar in the food industry would reduce EU demand for sugar by 1,282,500 tonnes in 2017. If the lower target level of the Action on Sugar campaign of a 30% reduction were achieved, demand for sugar in the EU would shrink by 3,847,500 tonnes.

This health-related campaign could thus potentially carry important implications for the future size of the EU sugar market and, by implication, the level of EU demand for imported sugar, including sugar imports from ACP countries. 


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