Childhood obesity: follow-up Contents


39.We have already described the positive effect of the soft drinks industry levy not only on the reformulation of soft drinks, but on the conversations which Public Health England have been having with other food and drink manufacturers about reducing the sugar content of their products. The childhood obesity plan says “All sectors of the food and drinks industry will be challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one.”49 This is a positive response to our endorsement of PHE’s own recommendation of “a broad, structured and transparently monitored programme of gradual sugar reduction in everyday food and drink products.”50

40.PHE is now tasked with delivering, and reporting on, that voluntary reformulation programme. The childhood obesity plan goes on to promise that

PHE will provide an assessment at 18 and 36 months (September 2018 and March 2020) on the approach adopted by industry. Government will use this information to determine whether sufficient progress is being made and whether alternative levers need to be used by the Government to reduce sugar and calories in food and drink consumed by children. If there has not been sufficient progress by 2020 we will use other levers to achieve the same aims.

41.We were encouraged to hear that the reformulation programme has already achieved a number of successes, including reformulation of Petit Filous yoghurts, Nestlé chocolate, and Kellogg’s breakfast cereal. We look forward to hearing of substantial further progress when PHE reports in March 2018.51

42.Whilst we hope that there will be further progress by that date, the evidence we heard from Prof Paul Dobson, professor of business strategy and public policy and head of Norwich Business School at the University of East Anglia, leads us to conclude that the Government should nevertheless be prepared to take further measures to back up the threat of action contained in the plan. Prof Dobson told us

To make a threat credible, you have to show what the stick is. To make vague suggestions that there could be further action is not enough. Give the industry a clear timeline by which you want it to reformulate and then work on that basis and say what will happen. [ … ] It is the lack of a clear timeline and consequences if you do not work to it that troubles me.52

43.Duncan Selbie of PHE disagreed with Prof Dobson’s view, pointing out that “we have committed to 20% over what will actually be four years—20% over four years, 5% in the first year [ … ] We can set out right now what we expect to do and by when.”53 Nevertheless, Prof Dobson’s point about consequences stands. The Minister emphasised that the Government is “prepared to go further if necessary”, but resisted our invitation to specify what measures might be taken if industry does not respond as quickly or as comprehensively as is necessary if serious inroads are to be made into the problem of childhood obesity.54 We urge the Government to set out the policy proposals which it is prepared to implement if the voluntary reformulation programme does not go as far or as fast as necessary to tackle childhood obesity.

44.Prof Dobson also reminded us of the importance of another significant contributor to obesity: portion sizes. He told us

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that portion sizes and the way consumers view them as the norm dictate how much they eat. We know that over time what is perceived as the norm has increased. Therefore, portion sizes in particular, along with snacking, seem to be a major driver in encouraging overeating.55

45.In Childhood obesity—brave and bold action, we concluded “We agree with Public Health England that a cap on portion sizes for relevant foods and drinks in both the retail and entertainment sectors is a clear way of reducing both sugar and calorie intake, and we recommend that caps on portion sizes linked to the calorie content of certain foods and drinks should be introduced.56

46.The childhood obesity plan notes that reductions in portion size are one means by which the target of a reduction in overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes of at least 20% by 2020 may be achieved,57 adding

PHE will advise Government on setting sugar targets per 100g of product and calorie caps for specific single serving products. The 4-year, category-specific targets for the nine initial categories will be published in March 2017. Progress will be measured on the basis of reductions in the sales weighted average sugar content per 100 grams of food and drink, reductions in portion size so that these contain less sugar, or a clear sales shift towards lower sugar alternatives.58

47.Portion sizing may be more difficult to make progress on than reformulation. Andrea Martinez-Inchausti of the British Retail Consortium, giving evidence to us, asked

[ … ] how do we make sure that we are moving in the right direction on portion sizes? It is a little more difficult to understand what that measure would look like. At the moment, there are talks about volume of sugar, but I do not think that will necessarily specify it or correlate directly with portion sizing. At the moment, we are all thinking about what measurement for that element might be, but the sales weighted average approach that Public Health England has suggested should go a long way in identifying, measuring and indicating that progress is being achieved.59

48.Jon Woods of Coca Cola suggested that, so far, the measures in the childhood obesity plan had had less effect on portion sizes than on reformulation:

The report [ … ] of the McKinsey Global Institute[60] [ … ] said there were two main things that manufacturers could do: one was the reformulation of products and the other was portion sizes, to which Paul has already referred.

The soft drinks industry is already very rapidly reformulating products without a levy, because ultimately it is competing in a marketplace to provide drinks that people want to buy. Increasingly, they want to buy lower-sugar, lower-calorie drinks. We are competing and the market is encouraging us to change recipes and reduce sugar content. I am sure that will continue.

[ … ]

Portion control is the other big thing. From McKinsey’s work, that seems to be top of mind for what manufacturers can do. I think [the levy] will have less impact on portion control than reformulation.61

49.We encourage Public Health England to go further with the introduction of means to measure progress in reducing portion sizing, and we look forward to reviewing progress when we return to this subject following publication of the first set of monitoring data in March 2018. In the meantime, we recommend that the Government draw up measures to implement our earlier recommendation of a cap on portion sizes, linked to the calorie content of certain foods and drinks, to be introduced if swift progress on portion sizing is not achieved by voluntary means.

51 Q143

52 Q59, Q61

53 Q140

54 Q144

55 Q3

59 Q64

60 McKinsey Global Institute, Overcoming obesity: An initial economic analysis, November 2014

61 Q33

23 March 2017