Tuesday 13 October 2020

Public Health England's sugar reduction fiasco

When it should have been preparing for outbreaks of infectious disease, Public Health England's big 'world leading' initiative was getting the food industry to reduce the sugar, fat, salt and calorie content of food by arbitrary amounts so the British public would lose weight without even knowing they were on a diet. 
Known as 'health by stealth', the scheme assumes that people blindly consume the same diet every week without paying attention to flavour. It is a textbook example of simplistic thinking by out-of-touch bureaucrats. As Adam Smith said of the 'man of system'...

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 chuse to impress upon it.
PHE buys into the dogma of the economically illiterate 'public health' lobby who think that consumers do whatever industry wants them to. And so it set food companies a target of reducing sugar in most processed products by 2020.
The abolition of PHE was announced in July but the quango will stagger on like a zombie until the spring. Last week, it published a 'progress report' on the sugar programme. There has not been much progress.
The sales weighted averages show that:

overall there was a 3.0% reduction in total sugar per 100g in products sold between baseline (2015) and year 3 (2019)

• there were larger reductions for some specific product categories (yogurts and fromage frais down 12.9%, and breakfast cereals down 13.3% compared with the 2015 baseline)

• there was a reduction of 6.4% for ice creams lollies and sorbets and 5.6% for sweet spreads and sauces compared with 2015

• there were reductions of 4.8% for cakes and 5.6% for morning goods, compared with their baseline of 2017

• there were much smaller reductions for 3 other categories: biscuits (1.6%), chocolate confectionery (0.4%) and sweet confectionery (0.1%)

• there was a small increase in the puddings category

This is obviously a long way from the 20% reduction that was hoped for, but we can see that some categories have seen non-trivial reductions in sugar content.
You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink. These reductions don't mean anything if consumers change their behaviour. This is where things get even worse for the PHE bureaucrats.

For retailers and manufacturers, it can be seen that:

• overall there has been an increase from 723,103 tonnes of sugar sold at baseline to 741,966 tonnes in year 3 which represents an increase of 2.6%

• as the population of Great Britain increased during this period the increase in sugar sold represents no change in sugar purchased per person from the food product categories included in the programme

• the largest increases in tonnes of sugar sold were 16.3% for chocolate confectionery, 7.2% for sweet confectionery, 6.1% for sweet spreads and sauces, and 5.7% for biscuits

• the largest decreases were 15.9% for yogurts and fromage frais, 13.9% for breakfast cereals and 4.0% for puddings


Furthermore, if we look at the volume of food sold...

• overall there has been an increase from 2,804,089 tonnes of products sold at baseline to 2,900,197 tonnes in year 3 which represents an increase of 3.4%

• as the population of Great Britain increased during this period, the increase in tonnes of products sold represents a 0.8% increase per person from food product categories included in the programme

• sales decreased in 3 categories: breakfast cereals (down 0.5%), puddings (down 3.0%), and yogurts and fromage frais (down 3.3%)

• there were increases in sales in other categories including chocolate confectionery (up 16.3%), sweet spreads and sauces (up 12.0%), ice cream, lollies and sorbets (up 8.0%), sweet confectionery (up 7.3%) and biscuits (up 6.8%)

Note that the two categories which saw the biggest fall in sugar per 100g (breakfast cereals and yogurts/fromage frais) saw a decline in sales. Coincidence? Probably not.

Meanwhile, in the out of home sector (cafés, restaurants etc.) things look just as bad from PHE's perspective.

For businesses in the eating out of home sector:

• overall there has been hardly any change in the simple average sugar content from 24.6g per 100g in 2017 to 24.5g/100g in 2019

• the largest decreases were 17.1% for breakfast cereals, 6.8% for cakes, and 3.9% for biscuits

• there was an increase for chocolate confectionery of 10.7%

PHE concludes by putting a brave on it...
There has been progress in some, but not all, food categories. Sustained progress in sugar reduction has been seen for breakfast cereals (down 13.3%) and yogurt and fromage frais (down 12.9%). However, as described previously, these reductions are not being fully realised in the programme overall. This is due to a reduction in the proportion of total sales from these lower sugar categories and increases in sales in higher sugar categories such as chocolate confectionery (which is reporting hardly any change in total sugar per 100g).

Overall these changes have resulted in more sugar from these products now appearing in shopping baskets than was the case in 2015.

You have to raise your hat to the British public. Faced with a sugar tax and a food reformulation scheme, they responded by eating more chocolate, ice cream and biscuits. PHE are very proud that soft drinks have less sugar in them, on average, since the sugar tax was introduced, but I suspect that the overall impact on sugar and calorie consumption - and therefore obesity - will be approximately zero.
PHE says it expects the forthcoming advertising ban to rid the nation of its sweet tooth (it won't) and there is a suggestion that the quango will continue lobbying for ineffective nanny state policies until it is finally put out of its misery.

Transparent monitoring of the sugar reduction programme, and further expert advice on the potential levers to address excess sugar consumption, will continue to be provided to government.

I doubt there is a single person in the country who associates Public Health England with 'expert advice' anymore. Good riddance!

1 comment:

Mac the Knife said...

I think it would be more accurate to say that PHE will be put out of our misery rather than it's own...