The UK government’s policy on high sugar foods has once again been placed front and centre as new research argues the advice for the recommended intake of added sugar should be halved. Government agency Public Health England has responded with a pledge to further probe measures to support sugar reduction, including tightened controls around advertising and promotions – as well as “fiscal levers” such as a sugar tax. Katy Askew reports.

A draft report published today (26 June) by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), a panel that advises the UK government, concluded the amount of added sugar people are recommended to consume under UK government guidelines should be halved.

Currently, government advice suggests added sugar – or as it terms the ingredient – “free sugars” – should constitute 10% of an adult’s daily energy intake. However, SACN today called for that level to be cut to 5%.

“In relation to dietary reference values, we are recommending that the population average of free sugars should be reduced to around 5%,” Professor Ian McDonald, a member of SACN, said at a press briefing in London this morning.

The report, which also suggests increasing what is termed as the “recommended daily value” (RDV) for natural dietary fibre, will be opened up to public consultation until 1 September. Prof. McDonald said SACN hopes to publish a final report by the end of the year “for policy makers to then consider”.

Responding to the committee’s findings, Dr Alison Tedstone, director of diet and obesity and chief nutritionist at UK government agency Public Health England, said the body is “very concerned about sugar intake in England”.

While PHE is not yet altering its RDV advice, Dr Tedstone stressed the UK government is focused on reducing how much sugar people eat in the face of the public health crisis presented by growing obesity levels and associated non-communicable diseases such as type 2 diabetes.

She told journalists: “If you look at the dietary data, you see every population group in England is exceeding current guidelines… adolescents by more than 50% [on average]… Over the last five years, intakes have not changed. There have been no improvements.”

Efforts to reverse rising obesity levels in the UK are falling short. Two-thirds of UK adults are now classified as overweight or obese. In children, one fifth of four- to five-year-olds are overweight or obese, a situation that gets rapidly worse, with one in three children leaving primary education overweight.

PHE launched a digital campaign on sugar reduction today and said it is looking at a “range of issues” around dietary health under its own report, Sugar Reduction: responding to the challenge.

Dr Tedstone revealed these responses include an examination of the use of promotions such as BOGOFs, often used to promote less healthy alternatives. People in lower socio-economic groups are more likely to have a higher sugar intake and PHE suggests that can partially be attributed to their reliance on promotions and perceptions that healthy foods are more expensive.

A “deep consideration” of advertising to children – including the use of digital platforms – is also being undertaken. The UK has already banned the advertising of foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar during children’s programming on television. However, the growing importance of the internet means this policy could require updating.

More controversially, perhaps, PHE is also examining “fiscal measures” that relate to high-sugar products such as fizzy drinks and confectionery.

On a potential sugar tax, Dr Tedstone said: “We will also be taking a deep look at the evidence on fiscal measures, particularly around sugary drinks, as a way of driving change in the population. Some countries have already introduced food taxes… but as yet there is little evaluation available.”

PHE said it will make a “more detailed assessment” of “emerging evidence” around the effectiveness of fiscal levers in curbing sugar consumption before reporting back to ministers in The Department of Health next spring.

However, while PHE is examining more radical options, the body is not backing away from its commitment to the Responsibility Deal, a government-backed voluntary initiative with industry that has focused on reformulation and education in a bid to improve the health of the nation.

Tedstone stressed the Responsibility Deal has met considerable success in reducing salt consumption by 15%. There is now the “opportunity” to use this framework to achieve similar results with sugar, she suggested. There is, at present, no specific pledge on sugar under the Responsibility Deal.

“We have a food industry that have made significant changes in our foods over the years. We have seen a large reduction in salt intake and we have good examples of reductions in sugar intake and things like Tesco and LIDL removing sweeties from checkouts, which has been an excellent example.”

Today, UK industry body the Food and Drink Federation announced an agreement to cap calories in single-serve confectionery products

“FDF members have agreed to implement a 250 kcal cap on shop-bought single-serve confectionery. This work will be complete by spring 2016. Since 2010, billions of single-serve products have been reformulated and/or reduced in size to bring their calorie content to less than 250kcal; the average calorie reduction for each of these products has been around 15%,” the FDF said this afternoon.

A spokesperson for the FDF told just-food the initiative did not specifically target sugar reduction. Rather, the focus for the industry seems to be on reformulation that reduces total calories. 

For some, this voluntary approach is failing to yield results that are either quick enough or sweeping enough. On Sunday, Action on Sugar – a campaign group that was asked to form policy advice by UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt – published its own findings on the subject. The NGO published a seven-point plan that explicitly called for the introduction of a sugar tax

With rising obesity levels putting a significant strain on the public purse and inflicting untold damage on the heath of millions, the pressure is on to find a solution.