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Government sugar crackdown branded a 'shambles' as it emerges sweets got sweeter during campaign

Sarah Knapton
Chocolate bars and puddings became sweeter during Public Health England's crackdown on sugar - Getty Images Contributor

Puddings and confectionary became sweeter during a government sugar crackdown, a new report has shown, as obesity campaigners branded the outcome a ‘shambles.’

Britons are collectively eating 2.6 per cent more sugar than they did before 2015, when Public Health England (PHE) told food manufacturers to voluntarily cut the amount in products by 20 per cent by 2020.

But experts said expecting industry to make products healthier without penalties was like ‘leaving vampires in charge of the bloodbank.’

The amount of sugar in chocolate confectionary has risen by 3.6 per cent since the start of the campaign, largely driven by the rise in the price of cocoa. 

Puddings and sweets eaten at home also increased in sugar by around half a percentage point. 

Although there were big drops for the level of sugar in some products, such as yoghurts and breakfast cereals, overall levels fell by just 3.9 per cent for food eaten at home and outside.

However, figures showed that taxing sugary drinks had seen a reduction of 28.8 per cent, leading campaigners to call for a similar levy for sugary foods. 

Tam Fry, of the National Obesity Forum, said: “The resounding success of the sugary drinks levy is the only welcome news in this report. 

“The years of the Responsibility Deal earlier this decade, when government 'challenged ' the food industry voluntarily to improve its products were a shambles and, by comparison, the drinks levy worked overnight. 

“It's no exaggeration to say that self-regulation is like leaving the vampires in charge of the bloodbank. Levies on a wide range of less than healthy foodstuffs must now be enacted. No ifs. No buts.”

Britain is in the grip of an obesity epidemic with 30 per cent of women and 27 per cent of men now classes as obese.

Recent statistics showed that the number of hospital admissions linked to being morbidly overweight has risen by 15 per cent in just one year.

Figures from NHS Digital showed there were 711,000 hospital admissions in England had obesity recorded as the first or second reason for admission, up from 617,000 the year before. Two in three cases were women, the statistics show and record numbers are now undergoing weight loss surgery.

The number of severely obese children has also risen by ten fold in the past 13 years to 4.1 per cent compared with just 0.4 per cent in 1990 and one in three children are overweight or obese by age 11.

But the new report showed that there had been no overall change in the amount of calories eaten since the responsibility deal began in 2015, and that the calorie content of many products had substantially increased.

For foods eaten at home the largest increases were 4.3 per cent for puddings and 3.8 per cent  for ice cream, lollies and sorbets. Away from home chocolate confectionery rose by 21.9 per cent, yogurts and fromage frais by 17.5 per cent, and breakfast cereals by 13.6 per cent.

Katharine Jenner, Campaign Director of Action on Sugar said : “It is shameful that other manufacturers are dragging their heels and will likely fail to meet the 20 per cent target. 

“Every year more and more children are becoming obese.”

Prof Russell Viner, President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said manufacturers were 'largely asleep at the wheel.'

"It is time for a wake-up call. If industry fails to act for child health, then we look forward to the introduction of mandatory sugar reduction targets in 2020.”

Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, admitted the campaign had been a ‘missed opportunity.’

“Many businesses have made progress in removing sugar from their foods, but there are now more products in the market and sales of some of the most sugary foods are increasing,” she said, 

“Industry has three ways of reducing sugar – reformulation, portion size reduction and using their marketing powers to balance sales towards lower sugar products. More businesses must embrace all parts of the programme if they are to fully play their part in improving children’s diets and tackling obesity.

“We will continue to monitor progress and will report to government, which will decide on the next steps.”

Dentists also warned that failing to cut sugar was leaving youngsters at risk of hospital admission for poor dental care.

Professor Michael Escudier, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons, called for a: “We all try to get the balance right between the ‘carrot’ and ‘stick’ approach, but we see today it’s the sticks that are working. 

“The soft drinks industry levy has been successful, with sugar content in fizzy drinks reduced by an average of 28.8 per cent. 

“Meanwhile progress has been limited for the products covered by the voluntary sugar reduction programme. Reducing children’s sugar intake is vital to tackling child tooth decay.”

Commenting on figures showing an increase in sugar consumption in England, Christopher Snowdon, Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs, said: “That sugar consumption has risen despite a concerted anti-sugar campaign, a sugar tax and a sugar reduction scheme shows that government policy has failed to change consumer behaviour, whilst putting financial strain on the lowest earners in Britain.

“The nanny state lobby’s solution is to stop Britain being a free country, and that is why they must be resisted.”