Encouraging food manufacturers to voluntarily reduce the calories, sugar or salt content of their products doesn’t work. That’s according to an analysis of changes in the nutritional content of food and drinks sold in English supermarkets between 2015 and 2018.
Over the years, Public Health England, a government agency, has set voluntary targets for reducing the calories, sugar and salt content of processed foods sold in the country. The voluntary targets were set in the hopes of encouraging manufacturers to change the nutritional content of their products rather than forcing reformulations.
Lauren Bandy and her colleagues at the University of Oxford have now assessed the impact of the targets.
“We basically found that there wasn’t really much change,” says Bandy. “The only change that we could see was with soft drinks.”
The soft drink change may be because sugary drinks have been subject to a UK tax introduced in 2018, she says.
The researchers observed a small increase in the number of products classified by the UK government as healthy on the basis of their nutrient profile, from 46 per cent in 2015 to 47 per cent in 2018. There was also an increase in the sale of healthy products, from 44 per cent in 2015 to 51 per cent in 2018. They attributed these increases to the sugar reductions in soft drinks encouraged by the 2018 tax.
“We need carrots as well as sticks when seeking to address the UK’s [obesity-generating] food environment,” says Stuart Gillespie at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington DC. “But when it comes to big food, the stick – in the form of a government-mandated tax – is far more effective.”
The products the team evaluated were from a number of food and beverage companies and didn’t include supermarket “own” brands.
“Some research has previously shown that private-label brands can often be healthier than their branded counterparts,” says Elizabeth Dunford at the George Institute for Global Health in Australia.
Journal reference: PLoS One, DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0254833
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