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Calorie reduction: too ambitious for action?

14 November 2018

Calorie reduction: too ambitious for action?

With the aim of reducing obesity rates remaining high on the public health agenda, Public Health England (PHE) are again looking towards the food industry to make changes. March saw the unveiling of Calorie reduction: The scope and ambition for action. The plan calls for the food industry to reduce 20% of calories in everyday products by 2024. Those included make a significant contribution to children’s intakes and have scope for substantial reformulation and/or a reduction in portion size. Through focusing on everyday foods, it is anticipated that the benefits will be wide reaching and impact entire families, rather than just children. PHE propose three mechanisms to reduce calories; product reformulation, reducing portion sizes and moving purchasing to lower calorie options. Stakeholder engagement is now well underway with a view to have final calorie guidelines published by mid 2019. With another wave of PHE targets for the industry and proposed guidelines having the potential to impact consumers’ choice and value for money, are plans simply too ambitious?


Salt and sugar reduction: stories of success?




This is not the first time the food industry has been challenged to reformulate products and PHE are quick to highlight the successes of salt and sugar reduction initiatives which supported the development of the calorie reduction programme (Public Health England, 2018). Salt reduction is hailed as a real success story by PHE, with evidence that the gradual reduction of salt content, in line with various targets over the years, has seen average salt intakes reduce by 11% (Public Health England, 2014). This does mean, however, that we are still some way off recommendations, with a further 25% reduction in salt intakes required to meet the current 6g per day guidance (SACN, 2003). The key here was reformulation – change the salt content of food rather than consumer behaviour.


An action in the Government’s 2016 Childhood obesity: A plan for action was for the industry to reduce 20% of sugar in products within nine food categories that contribute most to children’s intakes by 2020, with a target of 5% by August 2017. And how did the industry fare with the 2017 target? Not quite as well as PHE had hoped it seems, when they announced in May that only a 2% reduction had been achieved for retailers’ own brand and manufacturer branded products (Public Health England, 2018). In fact, in the puddings category, sugar content had actually increased. Does this result from certain parts of the industry’s reluctance to make real changes, or from PHE setting overly ambitious targets? And what are the implications for the 2024 calorie reduction targets? PHE have maintained a positive slant, highlighting some real successes in certain categories, such as yoghurts, fromage frais, breakfast cereals, sweet spreads and sauces which achieved, or in some cases exceeded, the 5% target. In addition, PHE recognises that “there are more sugar reduction plans from the food industry in the pipeline”. And perhaps this is the important message, that regardless of initial targets, progress is certainly being made.


(BBC 2018)


Chocolate manufacturers have been busy reformulating products to reduce sugar content:

  • Mondelez announced plans to launch a reduced sugar alternative to their classic Dairy Milk next year. The 30% less sugar and added fibre Dairy Milk will sit alongside the standard option. Plans are in place to reduce the sugar content of Oreo, Jelly Babies and Wine Gums (Independent, 2018)
  • Nestle have been working on reducing sugar content since 2000 and this year launched their Milkybar Wowsomes which, utilising their “ground-breaking sugar discovery”, contain 30% less sugar than Milkybar per 100g (Nestle, 2018)
  • Mars have announced that Mars and Snickers More Protein bars will be launched in January 2019. These bars see a reduction in sugar from the original versions of 40% and 30%, respectively (Confectionery News, 2018)




Another action in the obesity strategy was introduced earlier this year - the sugar levy. The tax on sugary soft drinks was designed to encourage manufacturers to reformulate existing products, along with developing and promoting healthy alternatives (Gov.UK, 2016).



When introducing the sugar levy in April, the Government stated that 50% of manufacturers had reduced sugar content since plans were announced in 2016 (GOV.UK, 2018). The soft drinks industry argues, however, that sugar reduction did not begin in 2016 (British Soft Drinks Association, 2018; IG, 2018). Whether the sugar levy has impacted significantly on consumer behaviour is yet to be clearly demonstrated, although a recent study carried out by the University of Sheffield saw a 30% reduction in the sales of sugar-sweetened beverages. This was following the introduction of an additional 20p levy on drinks with added sugar in public leisure centres (Breeze et al., 2018).


Childhood obesity

The focus on sugar and calorie reduction stems from the prevalence of childhood obesity in this country, with findings of the National Child Measurement Programme highlighting that over a third of children are overweight or obese when they leave primary school (Public Health England, 2018). Findings show that the health gap in this country continues to widen, with children in the most deprived areas having more than double the overweight and obesity rates compared to those in the least deprived areas. Obese children and adolescents are thought to be five times more likely to be obese adults (Simmonds et al., 2016).


(Public Health England 2018)


On average, overweight and obese children consume 140 to 500 excess calories per day (Public Health England, 2018) and the proposed calorie reduction programme, along with the sugar levy and sugar reduction programme, capture the food and drinks that contribute most to children’s calorie intakes; around 50%.


Calorie cap

The notion of capping calories is not a new one, with many players in the food industry previously pledging to cut calories as part of the 2011 Public Health Responsibility Deal. Voluntary pledges were designed to assist with the Government’s challenge to the population to reduce their calorie consumption by 5 billion calories a day (HM Government, 2011). Sadly, this attempt appears not to have hit the mark with a 2015 study concluding that over a third of pledges were already underway, the quality of progress reporting was poor and sugar reduction was omitted from pledges (Knai et al., 2015).


This has not deterred PHE and under the proposed voluntary guidelines, calories are to be capped on a range of savoury products including pizzas, savoury biscuits, crisps, snacks, pasta, ready meals and sandwiches. A review of the calorie content of some of our high street favourites highlights some interesting results:

  • Three out of seven Pizza Express ‘Classic’ options would fail to meet the proposed limit of 928kcal



  • Although Walkers crisps standard bags would meet guidelines, could proposals spell the end of Grab Bags?
    • Additional guidelines for crisps and snacks state that single packs should be the same size as a single pack from a multipack
  • M&S sandwiches fare well against the guidelines, with 89% of options currently on their website meeting the proposed 531kcal limit. Meal Deals less so. Two options were reviewed (presuming all sandwiches are included);
    • Sandwich + Hand Cooked Crisps + Florida Orange Juice
      • Only one option out of 53 meets the proposed 600kcal limit
      • Sandwich + Lightly Salted Popcorn + Diet Coke
        • 72% of options meet the guideline



  • 74% of Sainsbury’s own brand Italian ready meals meet the 532kcal limit. However,
    • Less than a third of the Italian Taste the Difference range meet the guidelines


Reducing portion sizes

PHE highlight the negative impact of the availability of larger-sized portions on calorie intake, along with strides that have been taken by the industry to reduce portion sizes; specifically, chocolate and single portion ice creams (Public Health England, 2018).

  • In 2014 Food and Drink Federation members agreed to introduce a 250-calorie cap on single serve chocolate bars, which involved changes to portion sizes. Manufacturers achieved this in 2016 (Food and Drink Federation, 2018)
  • Mars have recently announced plans to launch a new 100kcal range of some of the nation’s favourite bars in 2019

Consumer response to the changes in chocolate portion sizes could be explained by the growing appetite for more generous alternatives, with an increase in sales of sharing bags (Talking Retail, 2018). And what about value for money - does a decrease in portion size mean a decrease in cost? Not necessarily, with evidence of the adoption of ‘shrinkflation’ in some of our chocolate bars – the product has decreased in size while the price has stayed the same or in some instances increased (BBC News, 2018).



There appears to be no doubt that the nation’s calorie intake needs to reduce if we are to tackle the obesity crisis. Salt and sugar reduction targets and the sugar levy, along with the industry’s own reformulation programmes, have seen some promising results. Whether the industry feels there is scope to reformulate and meet the guidelines proposed by PHE remains to be seen. And what of the consumer? Do we want our food to shrink and/or potentially change due to reformulation or see popular ranges such as meal deals restricted? Seemingly PHE feel there is no choice but to change our environment as behaviour change does not appear to be cutting the calories.




BBC News (2018). Biscuits and chocolates take the ‘shrinkflation’ test.


BBC (2018). Blitz on sweet treats sees slow start.


Breeze et al (2018). The impact of a local sugar sweetened beverage health promotion and price increase on sales in public leisure centre facilities. PLOS One. 13(5): e0194637.


British Soft Drinks Association (2018). Position Statements. Soft Drinks Industry Levy.


Confectionary News (2018). Classic Mars and Snickers bars to include low-sugar, high-protein versions, says UK general manager.


Food and Drink Federation (last reviewed 2018). Portion Size. Policy Position.


GOV.UK (2018). Policy paper. Soft Drinks Industry Levy.


HM Government (2011). Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A Call to Action on Obesity in England.


HM Government (2016). Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action.


IG (2018). The UK Soft Drinks Levy: what’s the impact of the 2018 ‘sugar tax’?


Independent (2018). Cadbury to launch Dairy Milk Bar with 30% less sugar.


Knai et al (2015). Has a public-private partnership resulted in action on healthier diets in England? An analysis of the Public Health Responsibility Deal food pledges. Food Policy. 54, 1-10


National Diet and Nutrition Survey: assessment of dietary sodium Adults (19 to 64 years) in England, 2014.


Nestle Milkybar Wowsomes. Accessed 7th November 2018


Nestle (2018). Reducing sugar, sodium and fats.


Public Health England (2018) Calorie reduction: The scope and ambition for action.


Public Health England (2018). Patterns and trends in child obesity.


Public Health England (2018). Sugar reduction and wider reformulation programme: Report on progress towards the first 5% reduction and next steps.


Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) (2003) Salt and Health.


Simmonds et al (2016). Predicting adult obesity from childhood obesity: a

systematic review and meta-analysis. Obesity Reviews. 17, 95–107


Talking Retail (2018). Sweet like chocolate.


Product calorie information Accessed 7th November 2018 Accessed 5th November 2018 Accessed 8th November 2018 Accessed 6th November 2018

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