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Sugar Reduction Programme: Bread

Volume 822: debated on Wednesday 25 May 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why the recent sugar reduction programme, which challenged businesses to reduce the amount of sugar in food, did not include bread.

The sugar reduction programme focuses on those products which contribute the most to children’s intakes of sugar. Sweeter bread products such as buns, fruit loaves and bagels are within scope of the programme. Plain and savoury breads—for example, garlic bread—are included in the salt reduction programme, as these products make greater contributions to salt intakes than sugar intakes. Garlic breads are also included in the calorie reduction programme.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Sugar is in so many products these days and is so damaging. As the Minister knows, we have a crisis with diabetes and with obesity. Does he not agree that we should endeavour to remove sugar wherever we can? There was no sugar in bread 60 years ago. Why is there sugar now? Why do the Government not look at this again and stop it?

I pay tribute to the noble Lord. Since my first day at the Dispatch Box, he has challenged me on both sugar reduction and alcohol abuse. There comes a stage where it is diminishing returns. I know that the noble Lord and I are very keen on puns and dad jokes. When bread is being made, sugar is needed—kneaded; excuse the pun—because it extends shelf life by reducing the oxidation which causes food to deteriorate, it reduces the rate at which bread becomes stale, it activates yeast for fermentation, it adds the colour during the baking process, and it adds to the texture. The sugar contributes only about 2% of free sugars intakes in children. Therefore, it is much more worth while and targeted to focus on products that are higher in sugar.

My Lords, will the Minister join me in congratulating Tesco and Sainsbury’s? They have announced that, even though the Government are backtracking on the proposed ban on volume promotion offers of foods high in sugar, salt and fat, they will do it voluntarily anyway, and on time, to support the anti-obesity campaign. Will he encourage other retailers to join them and to work with their suppliers to reformulate and reduce sugar?

We should welcome moves by those in the industry, including retailers; if they can meet deadlines earlier, that is all to be welcomed. Perhaps I might correct the noble Baroness on one inaccuracy. The Government have not backtracked; we have delayed location measures until October 2022.

Next time I will bring a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary. Volume price will come in in October 2023 and advertising in 2024. We did that in full consultation with industry, and it is welcome when industry asks for deadlines and is able to meet them early.

My Lords, if the Minister is right that the Government are not backtracking but delaying, perhaps he could persuade the supermarkets that, instead of reducing the price of foods that are bad for you, they should reduce the price of good foods such as fruit and vegetables.

That is a very sensible suggestion. Across government, and with the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, we are trying to work with both the food-supply industry and retailers to look at how we can pull customers towards healthier products and work with companies to reduce sugar, salt and other bad things in terms of food reformulation to make sure that we have a healthier population in the longer term.

My Lords, in respect of the cost of living crisis and healthy food, why do the Government not make automatic enrolment in Healthy Start vouchers immediately happen? At the moment, only about 60% of people take up this good measure to spend on healthy food. This would certainly be a good counteraction to the delay in banning two for the price of one on sugary foods.

On the direct question that the noble Baroness asked, I will have to go back to find out more and will write to her. The Government are very keen on some campaigns that she will be aware of, such as the Better Health campaign, launched in July 2020. In January 2022 it took over from Change4Life. We now have the NHS Food Scanner app; with a quick scan of a barcode, families can see how much sugar, saturated fat and salt is in their everyday food and drink. There is also a campaign on on-demand video, as well as on YouTube, and we encourage people to download the app from the App Store or Google Play. More campaign resources are available, and I am sure that noble Lords would like to help promote them.

My Lords, the staple food of many people’s day is bread. The sugar content in the average slice of processed bread varies but can be up to 3 grams. Sugar is formed naturally in the baking process, but it is often added into it. The benefits of adding sugar are favourable for the bread-making process but not for the people consuming it. Bread can be baked without adding sugar and, yes, that will indeed alter its texture, taste, freshness and the speed of its rise. If we look at the ancient history of bread, we see that making it uses grain and wheat flour; chapatis, naans and numerous Middle Eastern flatbreads usually do not have sugar added. These recipes are healthy and are still being consumed today. Health is wealth; take care of it.

Right. I begin by thanking my noble friend for that very comprehensive question. As I said earlier, some sugar is needed in the process, but he makes an important point about how we reduce the unneeded additional sugar that is added. I have already given the reasons why there is some sugar, and no doubt the chemical processes will be improved over time: as mankind’s innovation and ingenuity increase, we will see more substitutes for sugar. I was also interested in the point made by the noble Lord about chapatis; next time I go to a restaurant I will ask about their sugar content.

My Lords, with the UK attending the 75th World Health Assembly in Geneva as we speak, it is concerning that the Government have delayed their planned measures to encourage a move away from foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt. To compensate for this, particularly for those who are experiencing higher levels of deprivation, can the Minister tell your Lordships’ House in what specific ways the Government intend to show the leadership that is so urgently needed?

I thank the noble Baroness for raising that point. Part of my role is in international health diplomacy, where other countries come to the UK wanting to learn from us. It is very interesting that a number of other countries are asking to learn from our sugar and salt reduction programmes, our alcohol and anti-tobacco programmes and our campaigns for healthy eating—not just telling people they should not do things but encouraging them to have a healthier lifestyle

My Lords, the Minister has said that the Government accept the need for sugar in bread, which is controversial with many authorities and Members of this House, but they seem to be taking an extraordinarily long time to accept the fortification with folic acid of the flour used for bread. As the Minister has heard many times, this would have undoubted health benefits. Since the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, is not in his place, I felt the need to ask the question.

I would have hoped that the noble Baroness would have lined up the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, to be in his place. Only yesterday, I had a meeting with him, the noble Lord, Lord Patel, and a number of other noble Lords, together with departmental officials.

We have to do this within the general picture of the Bread and Flour Regulations. At one stage, the dispute was about the upper limit of folic acid. We have agreed that we will push forward as quickly as possible. We were waiting for the Northern Ireland elections. It has now been confirmed that the Northern Ireland Minister will remain in place until a new Executive is formed. He has promised to push his officials to give approval so that we can get on with the consultation and get this measure in place as soon as possible. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, was happy with the progress we made yesterday. I am sure he will tell us in due course.

My Lords, addiction to sugar begins very early. It is included in baby foods. Will the Minister ensure that manufacturers attend to this sector as a critical component of the Government’s strategy? Does he accept that many people who are digitally excluded may not have adequate access to these campaigns and information from the Government?

The noble Baroness makes a very important point. Following our commitment in the Advancing Our Health: Prevention in the 2020s Green Paper, we launched a consultation on baby food. We are aware how important it is to reduce sugar intake. Those aged four to six should have no more than 19 grams of sugar—five cubes—per day. From the age of 11, this increases slightly to seven cubes. This shows the importance of addressing this issue at a very early age, and we are speaking to manufacturers about possible formulations.