Trend Towards Reduced Sugar Content for Processed Food and Drink Products Taking Hold


Campaigns to reduce the sugar content of food and drink products are gaining traction with consumers, while coordinated efforts are underway to promote greater use of alternative sweeteners within the food and drink industry. The success of efforts to reduce ‘hidden sugars’ however will be strongly influenced by the UK’s future sugar sector trade policy. UK sugar tariff reductions post-Brexit could slow down current efforts to reduce sugar usage in food and drink products, undermining public health policy objectives.

The trend towards a reduction in the sugar content of processed food products is gaining ground amongst EU consumers. According to analysis from Mintel ‘consumers in European markets are cutting their consumption of sugar – in Poland and Spain 63% are actively reducing consumption or avoiding the ingredient altogether. Some 60% of Italians are doing the same, as well as 55% of French consumers and 54% of Germans’ (1).

Research commissioned by the labelling organisation Sugarwise found 73% of shoppers said they ‘might or would definitely switch from their usual brand to one carrying the Sugarwise logo’. Sugarwise certifies ‘food with less than 5g of free sugars per 100grams and drinks with less than 2.5g per 100 ml’. Sugarwise is expanding its activities to mainland Europe after initially launching in the UK (1).

The move towards reduced sugar usage in food and drink products will be facilitated by the initiative launched by the UK Food and Drink Federation (FDF) and the British Retail Consortium (BRC) to bring together data and analysis on the range of sugar alternatives and their practical use in different food and drink product manufacturing activities.

Ingredient manufacturers and researchers are being invited to provide details of products which would assist with industry reformulation efforts, aimed at reducing ‘hidden sugars’ in food and drink products without compromising  the quality, taste, safety or shelf life of the product. The initiative is explicitly aimed at taking food and drink industry reformulation efforts to the ‘next level’, in response to Public Health England’s guidelines and the UK government’s Childhood Obesity Plan, which targets a 20% reduction in sugar consumption by 2020 (2).

Meanwhile Sugarwise has called on the UK government post-Brexit to apply differential import tariffs, based on the sugar content of products imported into the UK. It has called for low or no-sugar brands to enter the UK market free of tariffs.  This is seen as necessary to address the current reality that ‘healthier products …tend to be more expensive’ (1).

Comment and Analysis

While the practicality of the proposals advanced by Sugarwise for the application of differential tariffs on food and drink imports based on their sugar content may be questioned, it does raise the broader question of the consistency of any UK government moves to liberalise access to the UK sugar market post-Brexit with government health policies aimed at reducing per capita sugar consumption both by imposing taxes based on the sugar content of products and through voluntary guidelines on sugar reduction in manufactured food products (see companion article ‘Multiple challenges pending for ACP sugar exporters’, 1 May 2017).

This issue of how the UK government plans to reconcile its public health objectives related to reducing ‘hidden sugars’ in food and drink, with pressures to liberalise import tariffs on agricultural products such as sugar, will be critical to the future pace of the erosion of the value of any preferential access which ACP countries may be able to reconsolidate on the UK for their sugar exports in the post-Brexit period.

Currently scheduled EU reforms are projected to reduce sugar prices on the EU market. However within 18 months, if current sugar sector tariffs are retained and the UK’s exit from the EU is mishandled such that MFN tariffs are introduced on UK/EU27 mutual trade, then UK sugar prices could recover strongly. At present EU27 suppliers provide around 20% of UK sugar consumption (mainly from France and Holland). This trade would grind to a halt if MFN duties were imposed on mutual UK/EU27 trade (see companion article ‘Agro-Food Sector Effects of the Application of MFN Duties on EU27-UK Trade:  An Area of Potential ACP Concern and Opportunity’, 18 August 2017).  In this context, with expanded UK beet production likely to meet only 15% of UK consumer demand by 2019, sugar shortages could emerge with disproportionately high increases in UK retail sugar prices occurring.

This could create new opportunities for ACP sugar exporters to the UK, if public health concerns around ‘hidden sugars’ were to outweigh the lobbying efforts of Tate & Lyle Sugar to secure a removal of current import duties on world market priced sugar (see companion article ‘What are the implications for ACP sugar producers of Tate & Lyle Sugars expectations on UK sugar sector policy post-Brexit?’, 10 April 2017) and UK Department of International Trade (DIT) efforts to fast track the conclusion of FTA arrangements with major developing country groupings such as those in the Mercusor Group.

(1), ‘Healthiest products should be tariff free post-Brexit, says Sugarwise’, 25 August
(2), ‘FDF-BRC-back-coordinated-approach-to-sugar-reduction’, 21Augusts 2017

Key words:    Sugar, Food and Drink Federation, British Retail Consortium, Sugarwise
Area for Posting: Sugar, Brexit