Monday 23 September 2019

The sugar reduction flop

Public Health England published its second progress report on the sugar reduction scheme on Friday. The agency's press release focused on the amount of sugar taken out of soft drinks, which was understandable given that the 'progress' with food was almost nonexistent.

The plan was for there to be a five per cent reduction across the targeted foods (ie. most food) by 2017 and a 20 per cent reduction by 2020. I have always maintained that the 20 per cent target cannot be met. At the moment, even a five per cent reduction looks ambitious.

As of September 2018, the overall reduction of sugar in shop-bought food amounted to just 2.9 per cent. (The figure for the out of home sector seems bigger but is not weighted by sales so is not comparable.)

This feeble result has come largely from reformulation of breakfast cereals and yoghurts which have fibre and fat as straightforward substitutes, respectively. For products which are inherently sugary - including biscuits, confectionery, ice cream, lollies and puddings - there has been essentially no change.

The likes of Action on Sugar have seized on these figures to bolster their case for the sugar tax to be extended to food. Their argument, such as it is, is that the sugar levy led to a 29 per cent reduction in sugar in soft drinks and a similar tax on food would lead to similar reductions.

This is faulty logic. Replacing sugar with artificial sweeteners in drinks is a simple process (and also a profitable one, since sugar is relatively expensive). There are no technical limitations. Unlike food, drinks don't require sugar for texture, body or weight. The only barrier is consumer acceptance.

The situation is very different in the case of food, especially for inherently sweet products like, er, sweets. If you look at the table above, you will see that the amount of reformulation is more or less directly proportional to technical feasibility. And although there has been some reformulation in most categories, the industry can't force people to eat the reformulated products, hence the sales weighted averages are virtually unchanged in most cases.

This leads us to the most interesting fact in the report...

- overall there has been an increase from 722,976 tonnes of sugar sold at baseline [2015] to 741,700 tonnes in year 2 which represents an increase of 2.6%

- as the population of Great Britain increased during this period the increase in sugar represents a 0.5% increase in sugar purchased per person from product categories included in the programme

- the largest increases in tonnes of sugar sold were 16.3% for ice cream, lollies and sorbets, 10.4% for chocolate confectionery, 6.4% for sweet spreads and sauces, 4.9% for sweet confectionery and 3.1% for biscuits

A rise in sugar consumption at a time when there has been a concerted anti-sugar campaign and a state-led sugar reduction scheme is a pretty epic fail. These figures do not include sugar in soft drinks or in food from the out of home sector, so we cannot say for sure that overall sugar consumption has risen, but it is an awkward fact that a 2.9 per cent reduction in sugar in a wide range of shop-bought food has coincided with a rise in consumption in sugar from those same foods.

It is a reminder that we still live in a more or less free society in which people can buy whatever food they like in whatever quantities they like. It exposes one of the big flaws in Public Health England's cunning plan. The idea is to reduce the sugar content of food while all else remains constant. It assumes no change in consumer behaviour. But there was no reason to assume that all else would remain constant. The public is not as passive as PHE presume.

They would benefit from reading some Adam Smith:

'The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it.

He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it.'

There are two other points worth making. Firstly, the PHE report provides little information about calories. There is not much point reformulating a product with less sugar if it doesn't reduce the calorie count. Coco Pops slashed the amount of sugar by 30 per cent but only reduced energy intake by one calorie per serving. Reformulation of this kind will count for nothing when the companies are given their next target: reducing overall calories by 20 per cent by 2024.

Of the products that have been reformulated in a non-trivial way, only 14 per cent have managed to reduce the amount of saturated fat and the number of calories.

Secondly, Public Health England is very proud of the 'success' of the sugar levy, as in George Osborne...

But if you look at the PHE report, you'll see how trivial the whole business has been. Yes, there has been a significant decline in the amount of sugar consumed in soft drinks, and a lot of that can be attributed to the sugar tax/reformulation, but drinks with more than 8g of sugar per 100ml barely made up a quarter of the soft drinks market before the tax was introduced.

We can be almost certain that the 'stunning success' of the sugar levy will have no impact on obesity, firstly because sugary drink sales have been declining for fifteen years while obesity has risen and secondly because the drop in sugar consumed in drinks since 2015 has been largely offset by the rise in sugar consumed in the foods targeted for reformulation.

As for being 'progressive', the sugar tax is quite literally regressive. Campaigners try to redefine the term 'regressive' and claim that such taxes are actually progressive because the poorest members of society are the most responsive to price hikes and therefore reap the greatest health benefits. Leaving aside the fact that the health benefits are wholly unproven, the PHE report shows that the poorest people have been the least responsive to the sugar levy and have therefore been hardest hit.

If this is progressive, bring back the reactionaries.

Read Josie Appelton's exposé of the food reformulation scheme here.

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