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Food and Soft Drink Industry: Sugar

Volume 752: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the food and drink industry about reducing levels of sugar in processed products in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, through the public health responsibility deal calorie reduction pledge, food and soft drink companies are taking a range of actions to reduce calories, including sugar, in their products. Currently 38 businesses are signed up to the pledge. We are working across the industry to encourage further sign-up.

My Lords, five out of eight members of the carbohydrate working group on nutrition which advises the Government have direct links to the food and drink industry. Does that explain why it has taken five years for this group to report? Can the Minister explain why we do not simply follow the position of the World Health Organisation, which is expected to report that people’s energy from added sugar should be reduced from the current recommended level of 10% to 5%?

My Lords, the reason that we meet the food industry is to ask it to do more than it is doing at the moment. If that is what the noble Baroness means by the Government’s links to the food industry, then I make no apology for them. Our current emphasis is on overall calorie reduction, of which sugar can form a part. The scope for reformulation to reduce sugar levels varies widely depending on the food, and a reduction in sugar levels does not always mean that the overall calorie content is reduced. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition is currently undertaking a review of carbohydrates, as part of which it is looking at sugar. Its report will inform our future thinking.

It is shocking that a 375-gram portion of Sharwood’s sweet and sour chicken with rice contains six teaspoons of sugar. Some of our supermarkets, notably Waitrose, are working with their suppliers to reduce the amount of sugar in processed food, but many are not. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that all supermarkets and suppliers follow those setting a good example and reduce the amount of sugar, as well as clearly labelling sugar, in their processed foods?

My noble friend raises a series of important issues. I can tell her some encouraging news on this front. Sainsbury’s and Tesco, for example, have pledged to reduce the sugar content in their own-brand soft drinks. We are asking other supermarkets to follow suit. I think that the noble Baroness will be aware that Lidl made an encouraging gesture the other day in pledging not to display sweets at till exits. However, we are working across a range of areas, not just reformulation of food but pack size, introducing low-sugar or no-sugar alternatives, and looking at ways in which food is promoted.

Will the Minister please explain why in his first Answer he referred only to the food and soft drinks industry? Why did he not refer to the alcoholic drinks industry? Is it not true that, in the 130 meetings which the Government have had with the drinks industry since 2010, no progress whatever has been made on persuading it voluntarily to show calorific effects and sugar content on the labels of its products?

No, my Lords, that is not so. Ninety-two producers and retailers committed through the responsibility deal to having 80% of bottles and cans on sale in the UK displaying unit and health information and a pregnancy warning by the end of 2013. The three elements that industry has committed to display on labels are: the drink’s unit content, the Government’s guidelines for lower-risk drinking, and pregnancy warnings. I argue with the noble Lord that this is progress.

My Lords, while I support the need to reduce the level of sugar in processed food wherever possible, I am concerned that this alone will do little to improve the nation’s health or deal with the problem of obesity. What progress are the Department for Education and the Department of Health making on reducing the number of calories in meals served in schools, and what progress is being made on increasing the level of physical activities for the pupils in our schools?

My Lords, tackling obesity calls for action by the widest possible range of partners, including the food industry but also including schools. That is what we are trying to do through the responsibility deal. Our National Child Measurement Programme, the School Food Plan, the School Games and the money that we are putting into school sports funding—£150 million a year—all contribute to the joint effort across government to influence the way in which calories are consumed by children. I have encouraging news on that front, which is that the level of child obesity is now the lowest that it has been since 1998, so we are moving in the right direction.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Earl on leading on the successful amendment in this House which led to the vote going through the other place yesterday on smoking in cars. Can he further protect children by tackling the issues around obesity? What are the Government doing to encourage the soft drinks industry to take action on calorie reduction as part of the responsibility deal?

My Lords, I think that the compliment should be paid to my noble friend Lord Ribeiro for the part that he played in bringing about the amendment on smoking in cars. A number of soft drinks companies have taken action to reduce calorie content in their drinks. Coca-Cola has reformulated its Sprite product. AG Barr pledged to reduce the average calorific content in its portfolio of drinks. I have mentioned Sainsbury’s and Tesco’s actions on their own brands. Premier Foods has reformulated various products and reduced sugar in those. Therefore, we are making headway and I think that the responsibility deal is proving its worth.

Does the Minister think it might be advisable to ask the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition to define a standard of added sugar that should not be exceeded in 100 millilitres of fluid or 100 grams of food?

I believe that I am right in saying that the experts would advise that it depends on the product that we are looking at. One cannot make a blanket rule for every type of food and drink.