Calls for tax on manufacturers to reduce calories in products

Campaign groups Action on Sugar and Action on Salt want to see manufacturers reformulate categories, from cakes and biscuits to puddings and milk-based drinks, to make them healthier.

7 August 2019
image credit: Getty Images

This obesity issue is getting messy – the finger was pointed at sugar, but now campaigners are banging on about fat. Clear this up for me?

PHE and industry have focused too heavily on reducing sugar in products, forgetting about the impact that fat has on calorie intake, according to Action on Sugar and Action on Salt. The campaign groups, which are based at Queen Mary University of London, note that fat is a bigger contributor to calories in the diet than sugar. It is therefore essential that manufacturers are encouraged to reduce both in order to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis, the groups said.

Where’s the proof?

Not quite in the pudding, but a recent study published in nutrition journal Nutrients by researchers at Queen Mary showed that compared to sugar reformulation alone, fat and sugar reformulation could result in a much larger reduction in excess calories. The study looked at 850 cakes and biscuits and found a huge variation of fat within the same products, suggesting that reformulation is easily achievable.

For example, fat in chocolate cakes varied from 12.2g to 27.5g per 100g, while fat in Victoria sponges varied from 8.5g to 24.7g per 100g.

Reducing calories from saturated fat could not only tackle obesity, but also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, coronary heart disease and lower cholesterol, added the authors of the study.

So sugar isn’t the only bad guy. Should we be counting calories then?

PHE currently has two separate reformulation programmes to tackle the obesity epidemic–the Sugar Reduction Programme and the yet-to be detailed Calorie Reduction Programme – but breaking up the issues separately doesn’t make sense, according to Actions for Sugar and Action for Salt.

For example, cakes and biscuits are included in the Sugar Reduction Programme but not in the Calorie Reduction Programme, despite contributing to excess calorie intake from sugar as well as fat. This is a mistake, campaigners say.

It’s not just cakes and biscuits that Action on Sugar and Action Salt think should be counted in the calorie programme. Other categories they want targeted include chocolate confectionery, ice creams, puddings, chocolate spreads, morning goods and milk-based drinks.

Calorie reduction in these products could be achieved through the addition of fruit, vegetables and whole grains, according to researchers from the university.

But these programmes are voluntary. What’s Action on Salt and Action on Sugar’s plan of attack?

Money talks and the groups want a tax to force manufacturers to act. They have called for a levy on all calorie-dense processed foods that meet an agreed criteria set by government, similar to the sugar tax that was introduced on soft drinks.

Manufacturers would be required to pay money to the government if they fail to reduce excessive calories – with funds raised ring-fenced and invested in tackling childhood obesity.

“The UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy has been remarkable and unique in that it allows for significant product reformulation by manufacturers in order to avoid paying the levy. This has already resulted in a much bigger reduction of sugar content of drinks in the UK than originally anticipated, as well as ring fencing £340m of income directly from manufacturers, not the public, to spend on improving children’s health,” said Graham MacGregor, professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt.

“Additionally, the same could be achieved in creating alevy to reduce excess calories, but we need a firm commitment from HM Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care to make this a reality and to implement a robust evaluation system to fill in the evidence gaps.This levy should be invested back in a much more comprehensive approach to prevent obesity in both children.”

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