Calorie reduction - too ambitious for action?

Tape measure measuring size of sandwich

With the aim of reducing obesity rates remaining high on the public health agenda, Public Health England (PHE) are again looking towards the food industry to make changes. March 2018 saw the unveiling of Calorie reduction: The scope and ambition for action. The plan calls for the food industry to reduce 20% of calories in everyday products by 2024.

Those included make a significant contribution to children’s intakes and have scope for substantial reformulation and/or a reduction in portion size. Through focusing on everyday foods, it is anticipated that the benefits will be wide reaching and impact entire families, rather than just children. PHE propose three mechanisms to reduce calories; product reformulation, reducing portion sizes and moving purchasing to lower calorie options. With another wave of PHE targets for the industry and proposed guidelines having the potential to impact consumers’ choice and value for money, are plans simply too ambitious? The Reduction and reformulation programme: Spring 2019 update does not shed much light on progress, but instead highlights that PHE are considering points raised during stakeholder engagement when revising the draft proposal.

Salt and sugar reduction: stories of success?

This is not the first time the food industry has been challenged to reformulate products and PHE are quick to highlight the successes of salt and sugar reduction initiatives which supported the development of the calorie reduction programme. Salt reduction is hailed as a real success story by PHE, with the Salt targets 2017: progress report showing that 52% of all the average salt targets set in 2014 were met by 2017.

The gradual reduction of salt content, in line with various targets over the years, has seen average salt intakes reduce from 8.8 grams in 2005/06 to 8 grams in 2014. This does mean, however, that we are still some way off recommendations, with a further 25% reduction in salt intakes required to meet the current 6g per day guidance. The key here was reformulation – change the salt content of food rather than consumer behaviour.

An action in the Government’s 2016 Childhood obesity: A plan for action was for the industry to reduce 20% of sugar in products within nine food categories that contribute most to children’s intakes by 2020, with a target of 5% by August 2017. And how did the industry fare with the 2017 target? Not quite as well as PHE had hoped it seems, when they announced in May that only a 2% reduction had been achieved for retailers’ own brand and manufacturer branded products. In fact, in the puddings category, sugar content had actually increased.

Does this result from certain parts of the industry’s reluctance to make real changes, or from PHE setting overly ambitious targets? And what are the implications for the 2024 calorie reduction targets? PHE have maintained a positive slant, highlighting some real successes in certain categories, such as yoghurts, fromage frais, breakfast cereals, sweet spreads and sauces which achieved, or in some cases exceeded, the 5% target. In addition, PHE recognises that “there are more sugar reduction plans from the food industry in the pipeline”. And perhaps this is the important message, that regardless of initial targets, progress is certainly being made.

how sales of sugary foods have changed graph

Chocolate manufacturers have been busy reformulating products to reduce sugar content:

Chocolate Bars

Another action in the obesity strategy was introduced last year – the Sugar Levy. The tax on sugary soft drinks was designed to encourage manufacturers to reformulate existing products, along with developing and promoting healthy alternatives. When introducing the sugar levy in April 2018, the Government stated that 50% of manufacturers had reduced sugar content since plans were announced in 2016.

Fizzy and high sugar soft drinks

The soft drinks industry argues, however, that sugar reduction did not begin in 2016. Whether the sugar levy has impacted significantly on consumer behaviour is yet to be clearly demonstrated, although a study carried out by the University of Sheffield saw a 30% reduction in the sales of sugar-sweetened beverages. This was following the introduction of an additional 20p levy on drinks with added sugar in public leisure centres.

Childhood obesity

The focus on sugar and calorie reduction stems from the prevalence of childhood obesity in this country, with findings of the National Child Measurement Programme highlighting that over a third of children are overweight or obese when they leave primary school. Findings show that the health gap in this country continues to widen, with children in the most deprived areas having more than double the overweight and obesity rates compared to those in the least deprived areas. Obese children and adolescents are thought to be five times more likely to be obese adults.

On average, overweight and obese children consume 140 to 500 excess calories per day and the proposed calorie reduction programme, along with the sugar levy and sugar reduction programme, capture the food and drinks that contribute most to children’s calorie intakes; around 50%.

Calorie cap

The notion of capping calories is not a new one, with many players in the food industry previously pledging to cut calories as part of the 2011 Public Health Responsibility Deal. Voluntary pledges were designed to assist with the Government’s challenge to the population to reduce their calorie consumption by 5 billion calories a day. Sadly, this attempt appears not to have hit the mark with a 2015 study concluding that over a third of pledges were already underway, the quality of progress reporting was poor and sugar reduction was omitted from pledges.

Takeaway Pizza

This has not deterred PHE and under the proposed voluntary guidelines, calories are to be capped on a range of savoury products including pizzas, savoury biscuits, crisps, snacks, pasta, ready meals and sandwiches. A review on the 22nd August 2019 of the calorie content of some of our high street favourites highlights some interesting results:

  • Only one out of the eleven Romana and Calabrese pizzas at Pizza Express meets the proposed limit of 928kcal
  • Although Walkers crisps standard bags would meet guidelines, could proposals spell the end of Grab Bags?
    • Additional guidelines for crisps and snacks state that single packs should be the same size as a single pack from a multipack
  • 86% of Sainsbury’s own brand Italian ready meals meet the 532kcal limit. However,
    • Less than a third of the Italian Taste the Difference range meet the guidelines

Reducing portion sizes

PHE highlight the negative impact of the availability of larger-sized portions on calorie intake, along with strides that have been taken by the industry to reduce portion sizes; specifically, chocolate and single portion ice creams.

Consumer response to the changes in chocolate portion sizes could be explained by the growing appetite for more generous alternatives, with an increase in sales of sharing bags. And what about value for money – does a decrease in portion size mean a decrease in cost? Not necessarily, with evidence of the adoption of ‘shrinkflation’ in some of our chocolate bars – the product has decreased in size while the price has stayed the same or in some instances increased.


There appears to be no doubt that the nation’s calorie intake needs to reduce if we are to tackle the obesity crisis. Salt and sugar reduction targets and the sugar levy, along with the industry’s own reformulation programmes, have seen some promising results. Whether the industry feel there is scope to reformulate and meet the guidelines proposed by PHE remains to be seen. And what of the consumer? Do we want our food to shrink and/or potentially change due to reformulation or see popular ranges restricted? Seemingly PHE feel there is no choice but to change our environment as behaviour change does not appear to be cutting the calories.

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