The English are eating more sugar, even though the sugar tax on soft drinks is proving a success and cereals, yoghurts and cakes have become healthier.
The growing intake of sugar comes despite concerted efforts in recent years by the government and some food firms to strip sugar out of products to aid the fight against obesity.
Experts are warning that the nation’s increasingly sweet tooth will worsen the damage already being done to public health by sugar, such as through diabetes and tooth decay.
The alarming trend of rising overall consumption of what critics call the “pure, white and deadly” substance is revealed in a report by Public Health England (PHE). It shows that the sugar tax on soft drinks introduced in 2017 has proved unexpectedly successful and has led to a 28.8% fall in the amount of sugar contained in such beverages.
In addition, the sugar content of yoghurt and fromage frais has fallen by 10.3%In breakfast cereals it has fallen 8.5%, in cakes 4.8% and in sweet spreads and sauces 4.6%.
However, many manufacturers are defying the government’s plea to cut sugar by 20% by next year – which is a key element of its campaign to tackle the epidemic of childhood obesity. Firms have done the opposite of what ministers asked them to do in 2016 and increased the amount of sugar they put in sweets and confectionery by 0.6% and in puddings by 0.5%.
PHE’s research also found that many other common treat foods have undergone only tiny falls in their sugar content. They include chocolate confectionery (down 0.3%), ice cream, lollies and sorbets (0.3% less) and biscuits (0.6% less).
Overall, consumption of sugar rose by 2.6% between 2015 and 2018, PHE said. That equates to a 0.5% rise in consumption for everyone living in England, Scotland and Wales.
PHE blamed a general increase in people eating highly sugared foods, the arrival in shops of even more such products and, more specifically, on higher than usual sales of ice cream, lollies and sorbets during the hot summer of 2018. The amount of sugar people consumed from such products rose by 16.3% during 2017-18, and from biscuits by 3.1%, PHE said.
The agency’s report is its second annual update on progress towards the 20% target. It shows that sugar in the array of sweet products consumed at home has fallen since 2015 by just 2.9%. That is far less than needed to deliver the 20% cut ministers are seeking. It is only a modest increase on the 2% fall firms achieved in the first year since the reformulation programme began that that PHE identified when it published its first update in May 2018.
The upward trend in sugar intake, combined with many food firms’ refusal to make the 20% cut, raises serious questions about whether ministers’ reliance on voluntary moves by a profit-driven industry to help improve public health.
“Many businesses have made progress in removing sugar from their foods, but there are now more products in the market and sales of some of the most sugary foods are increasing,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, PHE’s chief nutritionist.
She noted that some firms were refusing to make the changes necessary to deliver the hoped-for 20% cut and urged them to get involved. Firms should reformulate their products, make smaller portions or use their marketing budgets to increase the appeal of low-sugar alternatives, she said. “More businesses must embrace all parts of the programme if they are to fully play their part in improving children’s diet and tackling obesity.”
Katharine Jenner, the campaign director of Action on Sugar, said: “It’s encouraging to learn that both sugary yogurts and cereals have been successful in the sugar reduction programme, proving that reformulation is easily achievable. It is shameful that other manufacturers are dragging their heels and will likely fail to meet the 20% target.”
The British Medical Association, Action on Sugar and other health groups want the government to extend the sugar levy to a much wider range of sweet products. However, Downing Street recently distanced itself from a plan by the Department of Health and Social Care to apply the tax to milkshakes. Boris Johnson and his health adviser, William Warr, oppose any further use of “sin taxes” to change consumer behaviour.
Publication of PHE’s report was overshadowed by claims that No 10 had blocked its publication because it highlighted how much the sugar tax had achieved. George Osborne, the ex-chancellor who introduced the tax, tweeted: “The sugar tax is a stunning success – and an example of progressive Conservative policy in action. No 10 should be celebrating it.”