Sugar has made headlines again, but this time it’s not on the U.S. side of the Pond.
Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the United Kingdom’s Department of Health, last week released guidelines for sweets manufacturers to cut sugar levels by 20 percent over the next three years.
The goal, the agency said, is to reduce children’s sugar intake at the source, and by extension, curtail childhood obesity. Nearly 30 percent of the United Kingdom’s (and the United States') young people — ages 2 to 19 — were considered overweight or obese, according to the 2013 Global Burden of Disease Study. Since 1980, there has been a 39 percent rise in the prevalence of overweight and obese girls and a 48 percent increase among boys in the United Kingdom, the study says.
Those statistics are not something to ignore, says Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE.
“We can’t duck the fact a third of children are leaving primary school overweight or obese and obesity generally is having a profound effect, not just on the costs for the health service, but on the overall health of the nation,” he says. “Our economy is affected as obesity can lead to long-term health problems that result in time off work.”
The guidelines target sweet foods young people are likely to eat: breakfast cereals, yogurts, biscuits, cakes, puddings, confectionery items and sweet spreads such as peanut butter, fruit spreads and dessert toppings and sauces. And the plan — already aggressive by global standards — sets a goal of reducing sugar levels by 5 percent by August.
“The scale of our ambition to reduce sugar is unrivalled anywhere in the world, which means the U.K. food industry has a unique opportunity to innovate and show the rest of the world how it can be done,” Selbie says. “I believe reducing sugar in the nation’s diet will be good for health and ultimately good for U.K. food business.”
PHE suggested three ways for trimming sugar content: reformulating products, cutting portion sizes and shifting consumer purchases to low-sugar products or those without added sugars. The United Kingdom’s food and beverage industry seems to have taken on the challenge, according to Ian Wright, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, an industry association.
“Manufacturers know the special place their products have in people's lives,” he says. “Companies are working hard to overcome technical challenges and make gradual tweaks to favorite foods that regular customers can accept.”
Nestlé is among the major firms leading the charge. In March, Nestlé UK and Ireland vowed to strip 10 percent of sugar from its confectionery range by 2018, which the company estimated would translate to 7,500 tons. Nestlé has made similar reductions in its U.S. products.
Meanwhile, PepsiCo announced at the end of last year that at least two-thirds of its global beverage portfolio volume will have 100 calories or fewer from added sugars per 12-oz. serving by 2025.
While the United States hasn’t set specific sugar guidelines, it has mandated labeling changes. Starting in July 2018, the Food and Drug Administration will require nutrition labels to list added sugars in grams and as percent daily value. It’s likely manufacturers will reformulate products to avoid numbers that would seem high to the average consumer.
As someone who’s always struggled with weight, it’s laudable that food and beverage giants are reacting to consumer demand for healthier products, particularly those with less sugar. It’s good for customers, and in return, it’ll be good for business, provided changes aren’t cost prohibitive and taste isn’t compromised for health.
That said, the burden of curbing obesity shouldn’t just fall on manufacturers. Continued consumer education is paramount to preventing and reducing childhood and adult obesity — not just on product content but also on portion control. Granted, many snack and confectionery companies have created “shareable” and pre-portioned packages, but it’s up to the consumers to follow serving sizes.
These measures are a good start, but we’re all in this together.