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An update on sugar reduction

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Health Improvement

On World Diabetes Day, we reflect on some successful work to transform some of the food and drink we buy and consume as the programme gains further momentum.

It’s obvious that the prevalence of obesity and tooth decay in children needs to be reversed. It is also clear that telling people how to be healthier is not enough on its own, as our environment encourages us to buy more food, more often.

That’s why the industry’s continued engagement in our world-leading sugar reduction programme is integral in turning the tide on our childhood obesity problem.

Sugar reduction programme

The industry’s involvement in our sugar reduction programme is hugely positive. Since we announced our sugar reduction guidelines for the nine food categories in March, we have seen some promising leadership from some of the big players who have a huge influence over what we eat and drink.

We’re still in the early stages of forming our guidelines for drinks outside the scope of the government’s Soft Drinks Industry Levy - milk-based drinks like fancy coffees and milkshakes, and fruit juices with no added sugar. Last week, we met again with supermarkets, manufacturers, coffee shops, pubs, fast food and casual restaurants, and public health charities to discuss the next steps in the programme.

As with the nine food categories – including biscuits, yoghurts, cakes and confectionary – we’re counting on feedback from the industry to help us set a challenging but achievable target. They know their products – and how they are made – inside out, so their expertise and perspective can help inform our guidance, which we will publish in early 2018.

But make no mistake – government expects progress sooner rather than later and there is nothing stopping companies from getting the ball rolling before next year.

We also held meetings last week with industry and charities ahead of our sugar reduction progress report due next March. The report will use commercial sales and nutrition data to highlight progress towards the initial 5% reduction and overall 20% by 2020. This will assess the reductions made by individual companies as well as the products contributing the most sugar to our children’s diets.

The meetings helped to inform how we will manage and set out the data accurately and transparently, so significant progress can be celebrated. We also want companies to help us contextualise the data – for example, if they have any sugar reduction plans in the pipeline that will not yet be reflected in the numbers.

These meetings have raised interesting questions about how success is measured and highlighted where progress could have been better - it’s important to keep these conversations going.

Over the last 12 months, we have seen a shift in the industry’s attitude towards sugar reduction. We saw this reflected in our meetings last week where there was a genuine sense that the industry is finding solutions, doing the right thing and rising to the challenge. Rather than just ticking the boxes, they are embracing the programme.

Christmas promotions

Companies up and down the country are beginning to tap into the Christmas cheer with new marketing and promotion campaigns.

Among many others, Coca-Cola has announced the dates for its 2017 Christmas Truck tour, which will see its trucks roll into towns and cities up and down the UK, giving free drinks to families and young children.

We’re encouraging local authorities to have conversations about how marketing campaigns like this involving free sugary drinks is compatible with bringing down concerning rates of obesity and dental decay in children.

The link between childhood obesity and deprivation is well established and it’s important to note the truck will be visiting some of our poorest areas.

We know many local authorities are committed to improving the health of their children and many specifically to helping address childhood obesity. We are seeing positive action from schools, where healthy eating is embedded in everyday life, and there are local initiatives to encourage more physical activity, use of green spaces and healthy cooking and eating. To really help children and families embrace these positive lifestyles, we need consistent messaging that supports them to make healthier choices.

Christmas is a time where we all tend to treat each other and ourselves and that is to be expected – but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that we’re consuming too much sugar all year round. This is affecting their risk of excess weight gain and chances of tooth decay now. It can also lead to further risk of chronic diseases such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers later in adulthood.

Our environment is already driving us all to eat and drink too much. With our town centres already overcrowded with outlets promoting sugar and excess calories, this is the last thing children need.

Government is committed to making the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and the sugar and calorie reduction programmes a success. In years to come, we are confident we will look back and see these as historic steps in reducing one of the biggest modern threats to our children’s health.

It is important that we address actions that could undermine this vital work, which is why we want to encourage debate and support local areas to make positive choices for the health of their children.

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  1. Comment by Mrs Lisa Baxter posted on

    Dear Dr Alison Tedstone.

    I was watching your interview on BBC Breakfast 2nd Jan 18.

    I agree with the need for awareness on the content of sugar consumed, but I do get very concerned with the way the campaign will be explained in schools. My son at aged 9 became anorexic because of a health questionnaire issued by the department of public health in 2015. He has recovered well through help of Doctors at Camhs. We as a family all had an extremely traumatic year. He was always a very active boy playing in team football and cycling. The questionnaire, although confidential, was intrusive. We did have many meetings with Dr Bruce Lawrence, director of public health for Banes. The questionnaire had many multiple choice questions asking about weight, food and exercise. Since our discussions with Bruce Lawrence i’m pleased to say many questions have been erased. One of the first questions was, Do you think you are Overweight, Underweight or prefer not to say? We felt such questions were appalling. It also asked if you did 60 mins exercise per day. My son was an active runner, footballer etc but started exercising in secret, this along with avoiding food quickly spiralled into an eating disorder. I think such announcements as the snack campaign should be carefully advised at school. As children are extremely influenced by such information, I would hate any child and family to go through what we did. Camhs were very disappointed in the way the survey was conducted and explained to his primary school that he had a catastrophic eating disorder triggered by a health behaviour questionnaire. My son was doing so well and was a slight boy anyway. He had to eat many high calorie snacks to get him back to a normal weight. This was a fighting battle as he had hit starvation mode. Now he is better he still has regular snacks as he is very active. A campaign addressing snacks could put children at a similar risk of eating disorders. I also think teachers are not equipped to tackle such topics and a health visitor may be better. Thank you for reading my letter. I just wanted to tell you my story of how a similar campaign put my sons life at risk. If you can enlighten me of the method this new campaign will be addressed in schools I would be very grateful. Best wishes.

    • Replies to Mrs Lisa Baxter>

      Comment by Michelle Hefferon posted on

      Dear Mrs Baxter, My daughter had the same experience. So traumatic for the family......she was 12 at the time. We believe her disorder came about due to the programmes on the television around people trying to lose weight and showing individuals who are at the far end of the spectrum who are in bed all day due to over consumption. There should be a balanced message and I do not feel the messages from the government are balanced at all. The new one being have only 2 snacks per day at only 100 calories each??? It does not advise where to get those calories from. A child should not therefore eat a handful of nuts or a banana??? What is needed is all round education and not silly straplines with no explanation. If someone needs a sugar boost, we are all expected to feel guilty about that. The soft drinks levy is another way to print money. It will not work. If someone wants a drink that is loaded with sugar then they will buy it regardless of a price increase.

      The people making decisions don't seem to have a grip on reality. Charts and stats may give you an indication but I believe more focus groups and education in schools would help. The first port of call should be with parents therefore education in the home environment and tips on how to make wholesome nutritious food without breaking the bank. Media can be very damaging when it focus' is on one or the other end of the problem.

      There is also a need for more mental health workers. Children have a lot of pressure and stress on them today. There should be confidence classes and lessons in schools and a permanent worker to identify when help is needed. Too many children are slipping through the gaps and schools need assistance to identify and help these kids.

      I would be interested to hear about any future initiatives.

      • Replies to Michelle Hefferon>

        Comment by Blog Editor posted on

        Thank you both for your comments and for sharing such personal experiences. We hope that you have received the necessary support to help you and your family.

        We know that people – and their families – coping with the difficulty of an eating disorder require specialist support.

        However, With more than a third of children leaving primary school overweight or obese, Change4Life was developed to help tackle our nations childhood obesity crisis by encouraging families to lead healthier lives.

        This particular campaign responds directly to parents’ concerns about unhealthy packaged snacks by alerting them to how much sugar is in the packaged snacks their children may be consuming and provides tips to help them choose healthier options. The campaign tip ‘look for 100 calorie snacks, two a day max’ applies to packaged snacks, not to fruit and vegetables, which can be consumed regularly throughout the day.

        All our campaigns are tested with parents to ensure they provide helpful and practical advice. Parents tell us having a limit on packaged snacks helps them, and the Change4Life campaign supports them on their journey towards buying healthier snacks, while continuing to promote a healthy balanced diet overall including fruit and vegetables.

        The Change4Life campaign features dedicated activity to help children to learn about healthy eating and healthier snacking. 3.6 million leaflets were made available to families via primary schools and free teaching resources were available for teachers from January. The schools resources do not promote the 100 calories message, as this message is aimed at parents and carers. The packs instead focus on healthy eating and healthier snacking overall, emphasising that fruit and vegetables are a great choice for snacks. The resources are developed with teachers.

        We hope this information is helpful to you and if you would like further information about any of Public Health England’s activities, please contact

  2. Comment by Anon posted on

    If you take out sugar and replace with cheap items like aspartame and artificial sweeteners, what is that going to do to our children in the future? What about allergies to these substitutes?
    Why not just reduce the amounts of sugar and not add anything else?
    More to the point, why are you forcing companies with a levy to do this? For the good of our children or just to put money in YOUR pockets!!
    We, as parents don’t seem to have any choices in what we want OUR children to eat or drink anymore we are being told what to do!
    Why not let the parents decide if they prefer to give their children sugar or poison?