What did PHE’s report card on the industry’s sugar reduction reveal?

Overall, the industry has a long way to go, but there were reformulation wins across supermarkets, restaurant chains and manufacturing.

25 September 2019
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It was perhaps dreaded by industry, but what does PHE’s second update on the sugar reduction programme reveal?

For retail and manufacturer branded foods there has been an overall 2.9% reduction in sugar since 2015. But there was a big difference across the categories. Yoghurts and fromage frais had the best success with a 10.3% reduction, followed by breakfast cereals at 8.5%, cakes at 4.8%, sweet spreads and sauces at 4.6%, and morning goods at 3.6%.

Low reductions came from biscuits with 0.6%, ice cream, lollies and sorbets at 0.3% and chocolate confectionery at 0.3% as well.

It wasn’t good news for sweet confectionary with a 0.6% increase in sugar in the last three years, while puddings saw a 0.5% increase.

Manufacturers made more progress than retailers for total sugar reduced per 100g, decreasing 3.3% compared to 1.5%.

Drinks had the biggest win, backed by the soft drinks levy. The average sugar content decreased by 28.8% between 2015 and 2018.

And for eating out?

There has been a 4.9% reduction in average sugar content since 2017. PHE admitted that this is calculated using a simple average and is based on more limited data and less comprehensive nutritional information than that available for retailers and manufacturers.

The largest decreases were 23.5% for yogurts and fromage frais, 17.1% for breakfast cereals, 15% for puddings, 12.9% for ice creams, lollies and sorbets, 9.1% for morning goods and 6.9% for cakes. However, the analysis for yogurts and fromage frais is only based on 54 products in 2017 and 38 products in 2018 and should be treated with caution.

There was an increase for chocolate confectionery of 3.6%. Meanwhile, calories per single serve portion increased by 1.8% since 2017.

Were there any standout supermarket reformulations?

Aldi’s biggest win was in its breakfast cereals, with its Harvest Morn Golden Puffs reformulated to reduce the sugar content by 25% from 28g to 21g sugar/100g.The calorie content was also reduced from 391kcal to 370kcal/100g.

For Asda, it was its morning goods, with the recipe of the Smartprice Sultana Scone reformulated to reduce the sugar content by 42% from 25g to 14.6g sugar/100g. Tesco also reformulated its sultana scones, reducing the sugar content from 24.5g to 17g sugar/100g, achieving a 31% sugar reduction.

At The Co-op, the recipes of 15 ice cream products, including sticks, splits and ice cream tubs, have been changed. The sugar content across the products has reduced from 16g to 37.4g sugar/100g before reformulation to 14.2g to 29.6g sugar/100g after reformulation. This has removed the equivalent of 21m teaspoons of sugar from the category.

Cakes were a target at Sainsbury’s. Its free-from chocolate brownie reformulation resulted in a 15% reduction in sugar. In addition, the portion size of the food-to-go and cafe product was reduced from 75g to 65g and the portion size of the individual item in the four pack was reduced from 35g to 33g.

Lidl tackled a summertime favourite, reducing the portion size of Tornado Ice Lollies from 7x70ml to 5x50ml. The recipe was also reformulated, reducing the sugar content from 21g to 16.2g sugar/100g, achieving a 22.9% sugar reduction in sugar.

Morrisons bucked the sweet confectionery trend. It introduced four sugar-free variants of boiled sweets, which have substantially lower sugar levels when compared with the standard product. For example, Sugar Free Rhubarb & Custard contains 0.2g sugar/100g compared with 71.3g sugar/100g in the standard variant.

At Waitrose, spreads were in the firing line. Six lines of peanut butter were reformulated, including both the 340g and 454g jars of Waitrose Essential Peanut Butter (Smooth and Crunchy). The average sugar reduction was 34.6% and was achieved by decreasing the sugar content in each recipe from 2% to 1%.

What were highlights in the chains?

Italian outfit Zizzi relaunched four gelatos and two sorbet products to reduce the sugar content by 10% per portion. For The Restaurant Group, a milk chocolate sauce – the highest volume bespoke sauce in the business – used in Frankie and Benny’s and Chiquito was reformulated, reducing the sugar content from 33.4g to 23.1g sugar/100g. This equates to the removal of just over 1 tonne of sugar since the product was reformulated.

For the coffee shops, Caffe Nero replaced Honey Yogurt Granola with a Coconut Passionfruit Yogurt Granola, slashing the sugar content from 16.5g to 11.2g sugar/100g, achieving a reduction in the calorie content from 184kcal to 137kcal/100g.

Costa Coffee introduced a new gluten-free vegan fruity flapjack to replace its original fruity flapjack and the nutty flapjack. The portion size and the amount of sweetened dried cranberries used in the new recipe were reduced, resulting in the sugar content reducing by 25% from 26.5g to 20g sugar/portion.

Reformulation of three Greggs cookies (milk chocolate, white chocolate, triple chocolate) was achieved with a sugar reduction of between 28% and 30%.

Fast-food operators also got in on the action. Domino's cookie was reformulated, reducing the sugar content from 41.1g to 36.6g sugar/100g, an 11% sugar reduction, while its chocolate brownie and chocolate melt desserts were delisted.

KFC reformulated their ice cream base for seven products achieving between 11 to 15% sugar reduction. Strawberry sundaes reduced from 23.3g to 19.8g sugar/100g and chocolate and caramel Kream Balls reduced from 28.1g and 28.2g sugar/100g to 25g and 25.2g sugar/100g respectively.

Pizza Hut also targeted ice cream. Its Kids Ice Cream Factory sugar content reduced from 18.8g to 16.9g sugar/100g and calorie content from 148 kcal to 139 kcal/100g, with a 10% reduction overall.

McDonald’s apple pie recipe was reformulated achieving a 15.8% sugar reduction, dropping from 13.3g to 11.2g sugar/100g.

How did manufacturing go?

Cakes were cut. Bidfood’s two Everyday Favourites Chocolate Fudge Cakes were reformulated, with the sugar content reduced by 22% from 41.8g to 32.5g sugar/100g; a portion size reduction from 102g to 96g resulted in an overall reduction in the calories per portion from 418kcal to 385kcal/serving. The new recipes also have slightly lower total and saturated fat and contain 33% less salt.

Premier Food’s Angel Slices were relaunched, rolling back the sugar content from 39.0g to 25.1g sugar/100g. This was achieved by analysis of the individual elements: sugar was cut in the batter and mallow while the icing topping was completely removed. The portion size was reduced from 33g to 24g resulting in a 28% calorie reduction per slice.

Ice cream also felt the freeze. General Mills brand Häagen-Dazs launched two new gelato products: Chocolate Drizzle and Caramel Swirl 150 Calorie Mini Cups. The Chocolate Drizzle variety contains 15.5g sugar/100g and the Caramel Swirl variety contains 16.5g sugar/100g, which is 30% less sugar than comparable Häagen-Dazs products.

Breyers Delights launched four new products, as it continues to vie for top position as top low-cal ice cream. The range has 68-75% less sugar and 62-69% less calories than similar ice cream products.

Meanwhile, Danone’s six Activia Core Fruit Yogurts were reformulated (strawberry, blueberry, fig, prune, mango, rhubarb). The sugar content ranged from 12g to 13.5g sugar/100g before reformulation, with total sugar reduction from 8% to 23%.

How have nutritionists reflected on the sugar report card?

“Great progress has been made with the Soft Drinks Industry, which indicates that mandatory reformulation is effective, or possibly that it is far simpler and quicker for companies to reduce the sugar in a soft drink compared to some other food categories,” says registered nutritionist Dr. Laura Wyness.

“Progress of the voluntary sugar reduction programme looks disappointing slow overall. Some categories, such as yoghurts and breakfast cereals, are making relatively good progress and look to be on track to meet the 20% reduction by 2020. Other categories and businesses still have a lot of progress to make."

For Dr. Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, it’s a mixed pictured.“ Encouragingly, some businesses have made good progress in reducing sugar, but some businesses and categories have made very little or none,” she commented. “We know the public wants the food industry to make food healthier. It is clear this can be done, but we urge the whole of the food and drink industry to keep up the momentum to help families make healthier choices.”

What’s the word from industry?

Tim Rycroft, the Food and Drink Federation’s chief operating officer, said it had repeatedly pointed out that PHE set hugely aspirational targets and that these could never be met across all categories in the ambitious timeframe given. “Reformulation and portion sizing are the measures that will have the greatest impact on obesity,” he commented.

How about health campaigners?

Katharine Jenner, campaign director of Action on Sugar, called for a levy to be applied to calorie-dense processed foods and milk-based drinks that meet an agreed criterion set by the government. “Fat is a bigger contributor to calories in the diet than sugar and therefore essential that manufacturers are encouraged to reduce both in order to tackle the UK’s unhealthy eating habits and the excessive calorie intake,” she explained.

What’s next?

Another update on the sugar reduction programme is expected in the first half of 2020.

PHE is also looking to further reduce salt intakes by 1g per day and will publish revised targets next year for industry to achieve by 2023.

It will also publish guidelines for commercial baby foods and drinks in early 2020 and monitor progress.

“While progress in sugar reduction is very much a current focus, companies should also be considering the whole nutritional profile of their products," adds Dr. Wyness. "From a public health view, any increases in fibre and fruit and vegetables would be beneficial, whilst levels of saturated fat, salt and calories need to be reduced. The calorie reduction programme and revised salt reduction targets coming soon should also help encourage healthier products to be produced.”

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