Sweets, chocolate, ice cream, and sugary breakfast spreads should all have 20% less sugar by 2020 under strict new public health guidelines – but even before they were announced on Thursday, the food industry is warning they may not be met.
Public Health England wants food brands to reduce sugar from nine categories of popular products eaten by children, saying it expects to see companies reduce sugar in the first instance by 5% by this summer.
The food types include cakes and croissants, yoghurts, puddings, cereals, and biscuits.
PHE wants to see 200,000 tonnes of sugar cut out of the food industry's products by 2020 to curb soaring rates of childhood obesity. It told BuzzFeed News the main focus would be on "brands with the biggest market share".
Companies, it said, could reduce sugar using a range of methods including reducing pack sizes, reformulating the ingredients of products, or shifting consumer purchasing towards products that contain less or no sugar.
However, the industry, represented by the Food and Drink Federation, has already warned hitting the targets in all categories by 2020 "won't be technically possible or acceptable to consumers".
The FDF, which represents food brands like Mars, Nestlé, and Tate & Lyle, as well as smaller food manufacturers, criticised policymakers for what it said could be a "naming and shaming" exercise of brands that did not meet the targets.
It said sugar played an important role in some products and cutting it would be highly challenging.
"We have said consistently that a 20% sugar reduction by 2020 across all foods covered won't be technically possible or acceptable to UK consumers," the body said in a briefing ahead of the publication of the targets.
Tim Rycroft, FDF head of corporate affairs, told BuzzFeed News at the briefing: "I understand of course why they want to tie down a target, because that sounds good and makes good headlines. But actually what we need is a commitment in the broadest way from the industry to make progress."
In a statement on Thursday, the FDF stressed that it "supports" the "ambitious" sugar-reduction drive, adding that while the targets were "very stretching", it was "up for the challenge".
The sugar reduction targets form part of the government's childhood obesity strategy, which was published in 2016, and announced the introduction of a tax on soft drinks.
The strategy, which was published in August after a year delay, faced heavy criticism from health groups that accused the government of having "watered" it down in the face of pressure from businesses.
It is unclear to what extent any lobby groups could have influenced the report, but campaigners said the strategy missed the opportunity to bring in tough new measures to curb the advertising of junk foods to children and supermarket promotions of unhealthy foods.
PHE CEO Duncan Selbie said the new sugar reduction targets were aimed at curbing childhood obesity, which, he said, was "having a profound effect, not just on the costs for the health service, but on the overall health of the nation".
A third of children were leaving primary school overweight, PHE added, and the targets were based on "more than six months of detailed engagement with the food industry and public health NGOs".
Health campaigners welcomed the targets but stressed that unanswered questions remained about how the sugar reduction was going to be enforced. They also urged government to take tough action if companies did not meet the targets.
Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar, said the targets were "coherent and achievable" but warned there was a clear "missing factor in this report", namely how these targets will be enforced.
The British Dietetic Association and the British Nutrition Foundation also welcomed the targets, but said more action was needed on the advertising and promotion of junk foods to children.
Meanwhile the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of 40 health charities, campaign groups, and Royal Medical Colleges, said the targets were "achievable" but that "the proof will be in the pudding; if industry say they can’t or won’t meet these targets, they must expect tougher sanctions.”
A PHE spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that the food industry was positively engaged in the sugar-reduction programme and that it had already seen sugar reduction changes, "so we don't think that's an issue."
Progress against the targets would be published in 18 months, he said, though he did not provide further information on enforcement plans.
PHE added that since the childhood obesity strategy was published, companies including Nestlé, Lucozade, Tesco, Waitrose, Kellogg’s, Sainsbury’s, and Marks & Spencer had already announced they have, or will, lower the amount of sugar in their products.
PHE said it would later focus on calorie and saturated-fat reduction as part of its wider reformulation strategy.
Sara Spary is a consumer business correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
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