Sugar Awareness Week

Close of sugar cubes in a glass jar

The government’s interim report on their sugar reduction programme

2016 saw the publication of the government’s report, Childhood Obesity: A plan for action, of which a key part included reducing sugar content in the food that children eat. It generated the introduction of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and the voluntary targets for the food industry to reduce sugar by 20% from the foods most commonly eaten by children by 2020, with a 5% reduction in the first year.

The government published its interim report in September 2019, documenting the voluntary sugar reduction achieved by retailers and manufacturers (in home sector) and the out of home sector (including restaurants, pubs and cafes) in foods contributing the most sugar to children’s diets, such as cakes, breakfast cereals and sweets.

The government’s report shows that, for retailers and manufacturers, there has been an overall 2.9% reduction (sales weighted average sugar per 100g) since 2015. The out of home sector, based on more limited data, saw a 4.9% reduction (simple average sugar per 100g). Considering that, in the first year, the target was set at a 5% reduction, the industry is way off achieving the 20% total industry target rather than that experienced by the soft drinks category.

Sugary breakfast cereals

More progress has been achieved in specific food categories, particularly for breakfast cereals (8.5% reduction), and for yogurts and fromage frais (10.3% reduction). As an example, Weetabix Ltd reformulated four of their breakfast cereals. The sugar content of Weetabix Original (2017) reduced from 4.4g to 4.2g sugar/100g; Alpen Original Muesli (2017) reduced from 22.4g to 21g; Crispy Minis – Chocolate (2018) reduced from 21g to 18g and Weetos (2018) reduced from 22g to 19g. However, there have actually been small increases for two categories, puddings (0.5%) and sweet confectionery (0.6%).

The next progress report, due in the first half of 2020, will provide a further assessment of progress by all sectors of industry towards achieving the 20% reduction. As the proposed reductions were undertaken on a voluntary basis, rather than being made legally binding, many experts are not anticipating much greater progress towards that target.

The soft drinks industry, however, was forced to make changes to sugar content by law, so what are the results of the soft drinks levy in comparison? 

Is the soft drinks levy actually working?

The soft drinks levy has now been in operation in the UK for more than a year and researchers have found that the sugar content of soft drinks has undergone a “striking” reduction since its introduction. Drinks manufacturers have cut the amount of sugar in their products since the levy of between 18p and 24p a litre was introduced in April 2018.

The Oxford University research, published in BMC Medicine, claims there has been a 29 per cent reduction in the total amount of sugar sold in soft drinks in the UK between 2015 and 2018. Researchers looked at the nutritional information on a range of soft drinks, including carbonated drinks, juice drinks and energy drinks, and combined their findings with sales data from 2015-2018.

The data revealed that 73 per cent of the sugar reduction was due to reformulation of existing products or the introduction of new, lower sugar drinks, while 27 per cent was due to changes in consumer purchasing behaviour.

Teaspoons of sugar
At this point, it is worthwhile remembering the current limits on sugar consumption. Adults should have no more than 30g (around 7 teaspoons) of free sugars – sugars added to food or drinks – per day. Children aged 7 to 10 should have no more than 24g (6 teaspoons) per day. Children aged 4 to 6 should have no more than 19g (5 teaspoons) per day. There is no guideline limit for children under the age of 4, but it’s recommended that they avoid sugar-sweetened drinks and food with added sugar.

More needs to be done to stem the rise in childhood obesity

Health campaigners say more still needs to be done and that the next target category should be biscuits, cakes and snacks, many of which contain extremely high amounts of sugar. In September 2019, the BMJ published a report which found that a tax on biscuits, cakes and puddings might be more effective at lowering obesity rates (in the UK, obesity is estimated to affect one in four adults, and one in five children aged 10-11) than increasing the price of sugar-sweetened drinks. This was because high-sugar snacks made up more free sugar and energy intake than fizzy drinks.

Researchers used economic modelling to research the impact of a 20% increase on high-sugar snack food in the UK. The researchers found that raising the cost by 20% would help reduce annual average energy intake by around 8,900 calories and lead to an average weight loss of 1.3kg over one year.

Meanwhile in Scotland, the government is already taking steps to tackle this area of the food industry. The Bill on Restricting Foods Promotions will be introduced as part of the legislative programme in 2020. The Scottish government is moving to become one of the first nations to propose restrictions to limit the promotion and marketing of food and drinks high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS), at a national scale. It will be interesting to monitor the success of such a move, bearing in mind the relative lack of success of the Soft Drinks Industry Levy.

Sugar is not the only culprit in the rise of childhood obesity

We must also remember, however, that sugar is not the only culprit in the rise of childhood obesity. An Advertising Association report last year found that children were not becoming obese because of watching adverts for food high in sugar, salt and fat, but rather because of increasingly sedentary lifestyles.

Evidence in the report published by the Advertising Association in March 2019 suggests that a lack of exercise is what is driving the continued prevalence of obesity among certain groups in the UK, rather than food itself. It also cites a 2015 UK NHS study demonstrating the limited number of children meeting daily physical activity guidelines. Only 28 percent of 5-7-year-olds met the recommended daily amount of physical activity, and as children get older, their already low activity levels decline further. By the time children reach the ages of 13-15, only 12 percent meet the recommended amount of daily activity.

This research was in some way backed up by a report written by Dame Sally Davies, ex-Chief Medical Officer, which urged the British government to adopt a number of strategies other than those just aimed at the food and drinks industry, to tackle childhood obesity. She proposed that Westminster should:

  • invest in and design the built environment to create the opportunities for children to be active and healthy
  • take action to improve exercise and healthy weight in pregnancy, breastfeeding rates, and infant feeding
  • ensure schools and nurseries play a central role, supported by Ofsted monitoring. Food, drink and physical activity standards should be set and adhered to in all schools and nurseries.


While the British government digests and deliberates on the findings of both Dame Sally Davies’ report and the interim report on sugar reduction, all those who look after or work with children can still take their own steps to improve the health of those in their charge.

allmanhall’s Registered Dietitian, Tess Warnes, works with all of our education clients to ensure that the food given to children in school is nutritious, low in sugar, and meets the guidelines of the School Food Plan. Tess has a number of suggestions for those looking to reduce the sugar intake within their catering environments.

How to reduce sugar intake

Breakfast shouldn’t taste like dessert. A lot of breakfast cereals aimed at children are high in sugar and/or chocolate flavoured. Replace high-sugar cereals with plain porridge or granola made from scratch (limit the addition of dried fruit, which is naturally high in sugar).

Alternatively, remove a sweet breakfast entirely and replace it with scrambled or poached eggs, smashed avocadoes or a vegetable dish. Many countries only eat savoury food for breakfast so caterers could try shakshuka from Turkey, burritos from Mexico or pho from Vietnam.

Encourage children to eat fruit for breakfast rather than drink it. Fruit juice alone accounts for around 10% of the sugar consumed each day by 4 to 18 year olds. Whilst fruit juice is high in vitamin C, the sugar, unlike that of whole fruit, is not contained in the cell structure and is therefore associated with tooth decay. Keep juice portions to no more than 150ml, ensure that pupils have only one per day and encourage them to consume the juice with a meal.

Check condiments for hidden sugar – condiments such as ketchup, barbecue sauce and sweet chilli sauce are commonplace in most catering kitchens. However, most people aren’t aware of their high sugar content. A single tablespoon (15g) serving of ketchup may contain 1 teaspoon (4g) of sugar. Other options to flavour food include fresh or dried herbs and spices, fresh chilli or chilli pastes such as chipotle or harissa, English mustard, or freshly made pesto.

Jar of pesto

Provide whole foods as these have not been processed or refined. They are also free of additives such as sugar and other artificial substances. Cooking from scratch will always reduce the possibility of hidden added sugars. A  Bolognese sauce made from scratch using fresh ingredients will contain no sugar, whereas a ready-made catering bottle of Bolognese sauce would have added sugar.

Cook desserts from scratch with fruit as the main ingredient. Many ready-made desserts provide very little in the way of nutritional value. They are loaded with sugar, which causes blood sugar spikes and cravings for more sugar. Replace sugar-loaded desserts with fresh fruit. It is possible to eat so much fruit that children end up getting too much sugar in their diet, but this is very rare. For children who want a dessert every day, offer them Baked Apples or Fruit Crumble, sweetened with a drizzle of maple syrup or honey.

Tess, allmanhall’s Registered Dietitian, can work with a catering team to review existing menus and tweak recipes to reduce the sugar content. Contact her at hello@allmanhall.co.uk for more information. In the meantime, do give the following recipes a try.

Bolognese Sauce

Makes 200 portions

Bolognese Sauce

Ingredients:
1kg diced white onions
200g chopped garlic
20kg beef mince
6kg chopped tomatoes
400g tomato puree
200g oregano

Method:

  1. Sautee the onions and garlic in a little oil until the onions are tender.
  2. Add the minced beef and cook until brown.
  3. Remove excess liquid from the beef.
  4. Add the chopped tomatoes.
  5. Add the tomato puree.
  6. Allow to simmer until a sauce is formed.
  7. Add oregano and season to taste.
  8. If needed, cornflour can be used to thicken the Bolognese sauce.

Baked Apples

Makes 12 portions

Baked Apples

Ingredients:
12 Bramley apples
Large handful of sultanas
4 tbsp light muscovado sugar
2tsp cinnamon
30g unsalted butter
4 tsp demerara sugar

Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6.
  2. Core all the apples.
  3. Mix together the sultanas, muscovado sugar and cinnamon.
  4. Stand all of the apples up in a baking dish.
  5. Stuff each apple with some of the mixture.
  6. Add a knob of butter to the top of each apple and top with a sprinkle of the demerara sugar.
  7. Put the baking dish of apples into the oven and bake for 20 minutes or until the apples are cooked through.

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