UK to lead WHO network to champion sugar and calorie reduction

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

UK to spear-head WHO efforts to tackle obesity in Europe / Pic: GettyImages/Lauri Patterson
UK to spear-head WHO efforts to tackle obesity in Europe / Pic: GettyImages/Lauri Patterson

Related tags HFSS Fat Sugar calories Obesity

The UK has been selected to head up the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Sugar and Calorie Reduction Network in Europe.

Speaking yesterday (13 September) at the WHO Regional Committee for Europe, the UK’s Chief Medical Officer, Professor Chris Whitty, revealed that the framework will invite countries across Europe to take action to cut sugar and calorie intake.

“The WHO EU region covers around 50 countries, meaning that it extends beyond the European Commission's framework for action and would have a much wider reach,”​ the UK Government – which recently exited the European Union – said.

UK’s ‘world-leading’ expertise in HFSS restrictions

Announcing the initiative, the UK Government said it had agreed to use its ‘world-leading’ expertise in domestic sugar and calorie reduction to support the efforts of European neighbours.

“It's a testament to the success of our pioneering work in the UK to help people eat more healthily that we have been chosen to lead this programme,”​ Health and Social Care Secretary, Sajid Javid said. “We will work closely with our European partners to challenge the food industry to reduce sugar and calories in its products - reducing obesity, relieving pressure on health services and increasing our resilience to COVID-19 and any future pandemics."

Public Health England (PHE) introduced voluntary targets to reduce sugar, salt and calories in 2014. Subsequent policy has built on this foundation, including the country’s childhood obesity programme and the planned introduction of tougher restrictions to high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) marketing and promotions​.

The UK’s new HFSS rules will impose media and promotional restrictions on 'unhealthy' products. Volume promotions, such as buy-one-get-one-frees and two-for-one deals, will no longer be allowed for these items. A ban will come into force on HFSS products being placed in secondary promotional locations in stores, such as end of aisle displays, store entrances and checkouts. Marketing of HFSS SKUs will no longer be permitted in digital and pre-watershed TV.

The Department of Health and Social Care's new Office for Health Improvement and Disparities - launching on October 1st - will lead continuing national efforts to ‘improve and level up the health of the nation’ and is tasked with tackling obesity, helping improve mental health and promoting physical activity.

It is hoped that these restrictions will help consumers reduce their intake of HFSS products in the UK. However, there is expected to be an economic cost and the regulation faced strong opposition from the Food and Drink Federation and Advertising Association​. According to estimates from IRI, the new regulations place £1.1bn in food and beverage sales at risk per year.

GettyImages-Lisa5201 child children marketing computer
HFSS marketing pre-watershed and online will be banned in the UK / Pic: GettyImages-Lisa5201

A recipe for success?

The UK government said its ongoing initiatives to tackle obesity and ‘challenge the food industry’ to reduce sugar and calories in the food most commonly consumed by children have ‘seen good progress’.

Figures from the Department of Health and Social Care show sugar has been cut by an average of 13% from breakfast cereals, yogurts and fromage frais.

Nevertheless, critics argue that the UK’s progress has been too slow. Research released last month suggests that the ten largest food businesses operating in the country have made little progress to improve the nutritional quality of their products over a four-year period​. 

The study, led by Dr Lauren Bandy and colleagues at the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Population Health, evaluated products made by the top ten food and beverage companies between 2015 and 2018.

“We saw little evidence that the recommended current targets have made a significant difference and we believe that without more policy action and a transparent monitoring and evaluation system, it is unlikely there will be meaningful change,”​ Dr Bandy observed.

Overall, there was a ‘small increase’ in the number of products classified as healthy: 46% in 2015 compared to 47% in 2018. There was also an increase in sales that were considered healthy, which rose from 44% in 2015 to 51% in 2018. The researchers said that this was largely due to sugar reduction efforts in the soft drinks category ahead of the 2018 introduction of a sugar levy.

Dr Bandy said that progress made in soft drinks showed what could be achieved through reformulation – as well as the effectiveness of financial policy levers to spur action.

“We know that if we are to see the reduction in diet-related disease that is needed in the population, the food and beverage industry has to step up and improve the nutritional quality of its products. Our study shows that so far, not much has been done to improve the healthiness of household brands owned by top companies, with the exception of soft drinks, which are subject to a tax that has encouraged lower sugar levels. The current focus on voluntary, single-nutrient reformulation targets might want to be reconsidered by policy makers,”​ she suggested.

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Some health campaigners argue fiscal measures like the sugar tax prompted reformulation to go further, faster, than voluntary efforts / Pic: GettyImages-Nitiphonphat

While some health campaigners believe that policy levers like taxation would move the needle further, faster, on HFSS reformulation, others stress that the UK does indeed take a more interventionist approach than many of its global counterparts. 

Chris Whitehouse Chairman and MMD of Whitehouse Communications, which specialises in UK and EU food regulation and public health policy and led the national Obesity Awareness Week​, suggested there is 'no better choice' than the UK to head up the Sugar and Calorie Reduction Network in Europe.  

“There is no better choice than the UK to bring together nations and take a pan-European approach to the growing health crisis of obesity. Over the past years, the UK has taken a proactive and practical approach which takes the necessarily holistic look at the causes of dangerous weight gain – such as lack of early nutrition education and access to sports and exercise equipment – and, therefore, the preventative measures required to confront this," ​Whitehouse said today. 

“We hope to see a wide range of measures and policies created which reflects the complex and sensitive nature of obesity: an approach which is as accessible and educationally resourceful as it is empathetic and understanding towards contributing issues such as mental health, lesser-recognised illnesses such as Binge Eating Disorder and PCOS and the ever-prevalent problem of food poverty, which allows all consumers and food and drink producers to carve out a healthier future.”​ 

The need for collective action

The UK Government backed the efficacy of its largely voluntary approach and stressed the need to work alongside the food and beverage industry through the WHO project.

“Work will take place with the food and drink industry to make their products healthier by reducing sugar content in products high in fat, salt and sugar, helping to tackle global rates of obesity,​” the Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement.

According to the UK’s assessment, an inter-governmental approach is important because the F&B market is increasingly globalised, consolidated and ‘supplied by the same international companies’. This means ‘collective action’ against HFSS products will ‘galvanise the food industry to take greater action and faster’.

“Obesity is a global problem and we need to take urgent action to help people live healthier lives. This starts with the food and drink we consume and reducing the elements that are bad for our health,”​ Public Health Minister, Jo Churchill said.

“Following strong action through our healthy weight strategy, I am delighted the UK will lead this international network to reformulate products and promote healthier food choices for people across Europe."

The WHO Sugar and Calorie Reduction Network will launch in spring 2022 and the WHO EU will be reaching out to member states inviting them to join.

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