Amanda is Healthy Food Guide's nutrition editor with a degree in nutrition and a post-grad diploma in dietetics. She is a member of the British Dietetic Association; The Nutrition Society and The Guild of Food...

Sugar is back under the spotlight again with the publication of new guidelines by Public Health England

We all know a balanced style of eating is less to do with fixating on one ingredient and more to do with seeing the bigger dietary picture. But sugar is back under the spotlight again with the publication of new guidelines by Public Health England (PHE). The UK food industry is being asked to voluntarily sign up to remove 200,000 tonnes of sugar from everyday food per year until the target is achieved in 2020

Why are the guidelines voluntary?

Dr Alison Tedstone, director of diet and obesity at PHE, believes putting voluntary guidelines in place will be a quicker way to make a real change to our national consumption than introducing a long-winded process of legislation.

The guidelines recommend sugar limits for nine food groups: biscuits, breakfast cereal, cakes and morning goods, confectionery (sweet and chocolate), ice cream, puddings, sweet spreads, yogurts, and fruit juice and smoothies.

What will happen?

All sectors of the food and drinks industry, from producers and retailers to restaurants, coffee shops and contract catering companies (who serve food in the workplace, in the armed forces and in hospitals) are being challenged to lower the amount of sugar in the food groups above by 20%, including a 5% reduction in the first year.

They can do this by taking sugar out of products (but without increasing the level of saturated fat) and/or reducing the portion size of individual foods.

While you may expect the makers of and purveyors of sugar-rich foods and drinks to kick off over such an approach, Ian Wright CBE, director of the Food and Drink Federation, which is the voice of UK food and drink manufacturers, is surprisingly gung-ho.

And although keen to make the point that physical inactivity plays a role in our unacceptably high levels of national obesity, he does admit that for many of us, the problem lies overwhelmingly with the excess calories in our diet and that many of these come from sugars.

‘Today’s report represents a constructive platform on which to build a world-leading programme of voluntary sugars reduction,’ he says. ‘All parts of the food industry – manufacturers, retailers, takeaways, restaurants and cafés – need to step up. The guidelines are very stretching but manufacturers are willing to take on the challenge.’

Indeed, many have already started the process, through reformulation, down-sizing of products and substituting sugar with intense sweeteners.

What the health charities say

All this is music to the ears of health charities such as Cancer Research UK, whose director Alison Cox says, ‘It’s clear that obesity has a major impact on cancer risk. Without action, the problem is only going to get worse, so it’s vital this new programme works towards the goal of slashing the amount of sugar hidden in our food. But it won’t unless the food industry acts now to meet these targets.

‘If industry can’t make this work, the NHS will struggle to deal with the obesity crisis we’re hurtling towards. We can’t afford to get this wrong. We hope to see companies cutting down on sugar and portion sizes over the coming years to play their part in improving our health.’

What we need to do right now

HFG couldn’t agree more. However, we also recognise we can’t shift all the responsibility on to others. We all need to play a personal role in helping to shape our own health, which means having access to evidence-based dietary information. This, in turn, requires an investment in education: for parents, grandparents, cooks, teachers, doctors, nurses and pharmacists.

The more we understand about the link between nutrition and health, the more likely it is that we can make the kind of choices needed for a healthy and balanced approach to eating today, tomorrow and in the weeks, months and years to come.