Chocolate bars set to shrink as England tackles obesity with 20 per cent sugar reduction target

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2017, 2:46pm

Chocolate bars and sweets in England are likely to get smaller as a result of a major push from health authorities, who are urging the food industry to help fight obesity by cutting 20 per cent of sugar from the main snacks and foods that children eat.

After talks with the confectionery industry, which has said removing sugar and keeping the taste would be hard, Public Health England is recommending they make the change by shrinking the size of the sweets and chocolate bars they sell.

PHE says changes to nine food groups could lead to 200,000 tonnes of sugar being taken out of snacks and meals yearly by 2020 and cut the number of overweight children by 20 per cent. The targets are biscuits, breakfast cereals, cakes and pastries, chocolate, confectionery, ice cream, puddings, sweet spreads and yoghurts.

But the agreement is voluntary and some obesity campaigners warn that food manufacturers and restaurants may drag their feet unless there is a way to force their compliance.

“We’ve seen over recent weeks that some companies within the food and drink industry have made great progress whilst others are seriously lagging behind and others claiming wrongly that they can’t do it,” said Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular medicine and chairman of the campaigning group Action on Sugar.

“If these recalcitrant companies don’t comply we need [Prime Minister] Theresa May to bring in tough measures to ensure compliance and put public health first before the profits of the food industry.”

The 20 per cent cut in sugar from foods, along with the sugar levy on soft drinks, were the two measures recommended by PHE and accepted by the government for inclusion in the national obesity plan published last summer. The government has since been criticised for rejecting other measures PHE recommended on more curbs on advertising to children and an end to multi-buy and discounted promotions of junk food in supermarkets such as buy one, get one free.

Duncan Selbie, chief executive of PHE, said they had never advised government that the sugar cuts should be compulsory. “We didn’t want to spend the next two or three years arguing whether a Jaffa Cake was a biscuit in judicial review,” he said.

Manufacturers and retailers had responded well to the proposed voluntary measures. “With a few exceptions, they have engaged very positively in this,” he said. “In the event that we don’t see progress we will be giving advice to the government about what further they might need to do.” He would not comment on what that might be, however.

Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist, said PHE would be publishing a “barometer” of the top 20 products children consume, showing whether the sugar levels were coming down. “Parents will be able to see,” she said. “We will put it straight into the public domain.”

But while the PHE targets and transparency were widely welcomed, critics questioned whether the food industry and retailers and restaurants would comply.

“If we’re serious about changing the nation’s sweet tooth, industry as a whole needs to commit to the government’s very welcome 20 per cent target and take collective responsibility for change,” said Professor Russell Viner of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. “The noises coming from certain companies remain a concern, with some hoping that a 10 per cent reduction in sugar will somehow get them off the hook of the proposed 20 per cent. The government must keep a close eye on how industry is acting and be tough on those who claim lower targets should be deemed a success.”