Sugar policy: what lies ahead for the food sector

Posted: 2 March 2022 | | No comments yet

Growing awareness among policymakers of the food environment’s impact on public health, means the industry can expect ever tighter restrictions and regulations on sugar. Andrea Gutierrez-Solana explores…

sugar policy

Sugar policies are the result of ongoing debates surrounding the role that nutrition plays in determining health outcomes; with particular focus on fat, salt and sugar. Over the past 30 years we have seen a steep increase in obesity rates – and in diseases associated with being obese – around the globe. It’s a complex issue, often misunderstood and oversimplified, but there is no denying that the food environment plays a substantial role in obesity levels.

For many years, fat content bared the brunt of blame for increasing waist sizes. During the ’80s and ’90s, there was an explosion of zero- and low-fat products on supermarket shelves, yet obesity rates continued to rise. In the last decade, that attribution has shifted over to sugar.

Regulations and specific policies on sugar have followed suit. To date, there have been two main approaches: setting voluntary reduction targets for industry and introducing taxes on sugary drinks and foods. Looking at the UK, one of the first examples of such regulations is Public Health England’s 2016 sugar reduction programme, which aimed to reduce sugar content in food by 20 percent by 2020. In 2018, the UK also saw a soft beverage tax; a charge of 24p a litre placed on drinks containing 8g of sugar per 100ml and 18p a litre on those with 5-8g per 100ml. We’ve seen a similar story in many European countries, with the introduction of voluntary reformulation programmes and taxes.

So, what’s coming up in terms of new policies and regulations in the EU and the UK?

New sugar policies

There are a couple of things worth noting; the first is that public health discussions about nutrition seem to be shifting focus purely to sugar or fat rather than fat, sugar and salt combined. This is not only because a high consumption of each of these substances is believed to lead to negative health outcomes, but also to avoid situations in which tackling the amount of one of these factors in food products could lead to an increase in consumption of the others. This happened during the low-fat era mentioned above, wherein companies reduced fat yet increased added sugars to maintain products’ taste and consistency.

The second is that regulators are using other indirect methods to encourage product reformulation more and more; mostly through the requirement to provide appropriate labelling and food information for consumers, but also through marketing and advertising restrictions.

The European Commission (EC) is planning to introduce a harmonised, mandatory front of pack nutrition labelling scheme in the EU. Labels will have to indicate the amount of fat, salt, sugar and calories on the front of product packaging and possibly rate these products in a range from ‘advisable’ to ‘not so advisable’. Different schemes, such as Nutriscore and the Nordic Keyhole system, already operate on a voluntary basis in many member states. However, the EC wants to go a step further by introducing a mandatory system that will be used uniformly across the EU.

girl looking at supermarket shelf

Restrictions around store placement of HFSS products in the UK aim to reduce temptation

The EC is also looking to set nutrient profiles; these are levels beyond which fat, salt and sugar will not be allowed, or will be severely restricted, if the product bears a health or nutrition claim. For example, if a breakfast cereal has added Vitamin D but scores poorly under the nutrient profile, it will not be able to include any health or nutrition claims indicating the presence (and benefits) of Vitamin D.

Meanwhile in the UK, as part of its Obesity Strategy, the Government is introducing restrictions on advertising, promotion and location (in store and online) of foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). The restrictions mean that, among other things, brands will not be able to use paid advertisements of HFSS products online (at any time) or on TV after 9.00pm. It will also mean that consumers won’t be tempted at the checkout aisle in the supermarket, as retailers won’t be allowed to place these products at the till or in other prominent places.

And there is possibly more to come in the UK; Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy includes a recommendation to introduce mandatory reporting for large food companies on sales of HFSS products, and a call for a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt. The Government is yet to respond to these recommendations, though a Whitepaper is expected to be published early next year.

Many of these measures in the EU and the UK are still under (heated) discussion. Most within the food industry recognise that something must be done to improve the food environment, but they also warn of a lack of nuance in many of these policies. The concern is that these are often rushed without due consideration of their impact and whether they will translate into healthier nutrition habits among citizens. After all, obesity and our whole relationship with food is complex, with multifactorial issues. There are no quick wins when it comes to nutrition policy, and any measures and regulations need to recognise this and be planned carefully.

About the author

Andrea Gutierrez-Solana is an Account Director at Whitehouse Communications where she leads the work on various clients operating in the EU and UK markets and provides regulatory and policy advice on food and nutrition, public health and sustainability. Previously, Andrea worked for a Brussels-based law firm, specialised in competition, trade and agri-food regulatory matters, and for the European Commission Directorate General for Trade, where she dealt with food safety and market access files. Andrea holds a dual bachelor’s degree in Law and Political Science and Public Administration, and a Master’s in EU Law.

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