A consumer led, free choice approach

In 2017, the APPG for Diabetes is doing things differently. Instead of a yearlong inquiry, we will conduct seven smaller inquiries in unique topics. In January 18, the APPG for Diabetes began its 2017 programme with a meeting on the food and drink industry’s initiatives towards the Childhood Obesity Plan.

You can download the minutes here: minutes-for-appgd-meeting-on-industry-initiatives-18-January

Today, almost 12 million people in the UK are at an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Over 80% of this overall risk is caused by being overweight or obese. Therefore, making products healthier and encouraging healthy choices are important steps to help fight the obesity crisis and increasing prevalence of type 2 diabetes in the UK.

There is a clear link between sugar intake and childhood overweight/obesity, as illustrated in the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s July 2015 report on Carbohydrates and Health.[1] With 30% of the sugar in children’s diets coming from sugary drinks,[2] it is clear that action is needed in this area. While the government has introduced the Soft Drinks Industry Levy (SDIL), manufactures have been given time to take action and reformulate products in order to avoid the Levy if they choose to do so. What can we expect?

Moreover, Public Health England (PHE)’s voluntary programme allows retailers and manufacturers of a wide range of product categories to choose if and how to implement a proposed target of 20% sales-weighted average reduction in sugar by 2020. Not only it is voluntary, but it might not be enough. PHE examined the impact (but not the technical feasibility) of reducing the sugar content of the top 8 product categories by 50% and found that sugar intakes would reduce to 9.2% of total energy in adults and 10.9% of energy in children aged 11-18[3]. These levels would still be significantly above the SACN target of 5% energy in both adults and children.

Consequently, the industry’s decisions will impact our food choices and the effectiveness of the Childhood Obesity Plan. The meeting focused on hearing from manufacturers and retailers about the strategies they are undertaking in response to the plan and their views on what is yet to come.

Will Blomefield, Head of UK Government Relationships at Tesco



Will Blomefield started talking about the commitment Tesco has already made to be in the forefront of the fight against obesity and type 2 diabetes. He explained Tesco has started to reformulate all brand products as a part of a wider strategy to make it easier for Tesco’s consumers to live a healthier life. He mentioned how Tesco first started the reformulation process of its soft drinks range in 2011 and has also reduced fat and salt from more than 4,200 of its own products since 2012. Therefore, Tesco’s actions have been consumer-led, not a response to the Levy.

As a result, he revealed Tesco’s consumers are now consuming on average over 20% less sugar from their soft drinks than in 2011 and its own brand soft drinks are all within the Levy guidelines (below 5g of sugar per 100ml). Tesco’s primary concern has been making sure the products still taste great, and the entire reformulation process involved conducting rigorous tests with customers.

Keith Vaz MP questioned the retailer’s relationship with its suppliers, especially the ones that do not share the same commitment to facilitating healthier lives. Will Blomefield answered that Tesco is open to have conversations with suppliers, but that the retailer is not in the position to tell suppliers what to do with their products or brand.

Keith Vaz MP also questioned Tesco in regards to in-store promotions and if the retailer would make sure healthy products are more visible than unhealthy ones. Will Blomefield answered Tesco makes sure healthy products are as available as an option as unhealthy products, but that the retailer is not in the position to determinate what consumers can or not eat by hiding unhealthy products, as it is the consumer’s choice.

In a follow-up, Keith Vaz MP mentioned Tesco’s initiative of distributing free fruits in stores, how it was the retailer’s pro-active action to encourage fruit consumption, and if Tesco would not take a similar leadership role in encouraging healthy products over unhealthy ones. Will Blomefield answered that a similar action would not be possible as interfering with the promotion of paid products is more complex.

Dr Mark Saxon, Head of Public Affairs at Coca Cola UK



Dr Mark Saxon started talking on how Coca Cola UK sees obesity as a complex and systemic issue that need to be tackled with an equally complex and systemic strategy. He mentioned how he does not believe the focus of reducing obesity should be on reducing sugar, but on reducing calories. However, as the only source of calories on Coca Cola products comes from sugar, this is what the company is focusing on.

He explained how, similar to Tesco, Coca Cola has been reformulating, introducing alternative products, reducing pack sizes and increasing marketing investment in sugarless options since 2005. This action was not influenced by the Levy, but by consumers who have been requesting healthier options. Since 2005, Coca Cola has launched over 27 new and reformulated sugar drinks, removing thousands of tons of sugar from the British diet. Right now, all of 19 brands in the UK have a reduced or no sugar/calorie alternative. Moreover, since 2012 the company’s commercial strategy has focused on no sugar options, increasing marketing investment between 2012 and 2014 by 52%.

As a result, Dr Saxon explained many of Coca Cola’s products are already under the levy or on the lower band. In 2017, Coca Cola UK is launching the new Coca Cola Zero, which has the closest flavour to the original they have ever been able to reach and the largest marketing investment in a new product launch for a decade. He mentioned, as the objective is to give consumers options, that Coca Cola has no plans to ever stop producing the original flavour. However, he shares that, even though sales of the original flavour are still higher than the Zero Sugar, the sales of the sugarless options are increasing in a much fast rate than the originals. Dr Saxon also mentioned that due to consumer misinformation, Coca Cola is also changing packaging and marketing of Coca Cola Zero to make it clearer that the drink is sugar-free.

Dr Saxon also reinforced Tesco’s argument that the main objective is to provide healthier choices to consumers that they want to consume, hence the investment of almost £30 million in research and development and the challenge of finding the right taste profile and intensity to reformulated products.

Due to Coca Cola’s voluntary commitment to healthier lives throughout the years, Dr Saxon expressed his disappointment with the Levy as it shows the government’s mistrust of industry with what he believes to be a failed strategy that takes credit for results of actions the industry was already doing for years. He mentioned the McKinsey Global Institute’s obesity report, which showed reformulation and reducing portions as the most effective interventions to reduce obesity, not taxes. He praised the voluntary targets to be proposed by Public Health England, and their collaborative work with the industry without singling out the soft drinks industry.

Ben Moody, from JDRF, asked if Coca Cola UK would choose to repass the cost from the Levy to its customers. Dr Saxon informed there was not a decision at this point and mentioned how many of Coca Cola’s products will not be affected by the Levy at all.

Keith Vaz MP questioned Coca Cola UK’s promotional activity during Christmas with a truck, in the original flavour branding, distributing free soft drinks. Dr Saxon explained the red truck is the one available to Coca Cola UK and that no products, with or without sugar, were given to children under 12 without parents’ permission. Also mentioned all samples were in small packs with less than 65kcal each. He noted how Coca Cola UK is already being impacted by bad publicity on sugar and how the company was asked by parliament not to be in Leicester square in 2016, for the first time.

Michelle Norman and Dr Caroline Saunders, Head of External Affairs and Head of Nutrition at Lucozade Ribena Suntory



Michelle Norman started talking about how the consumer mind set has changed throughout the years towards healthier choices, and Lucozade decided to supply this new demand by giving consumers options. Lucozade started a process to reformulate all existing and new products with added sugar to have less than 4.5g of total sugar per 100ml by July 2017 and looking at healthier drinks they can bring to market from scratch. This move means all products will fall below the Levy requirement (5g of sugar per 100ml).

Moreover, all packaging will be changed to ensure the nutritional information of the products can be clearly seen on the front. Furthermore, similar to Coca Cola UK, Michelle Norman explained how the company is also introducing various pack sizes, from 500ml, to 380ml and 250ml. She said the company has also been investing in marketing to encourage consumers to buy the no-added sugar versions.

Dr Caroline Saunders backed Coca Cola UK on explaining that the process of reformulating products to have less sugar content is long and arduous as you try to maintain the taste of the original product as much as possible. She mentioned that creating a product consumers will not drink defeats the purpose of the strategy. Dr Saunders also explained the challenge of removing sugar does not affect only sugar content and taste, but also texture, which needs to be matched. She shared how Lucozade has been able to succeed in reformulating some of its products, for example the Zero version of Lucozade Energy, but it is still struggling with others.

Liz McInnes MP questioned the fact that, if the industry works to avoid the Levy, there will be no funding for sports in schools that planned by the Government to come out from the Levy. Will Blomefield and Michelle Norman listed Tesco and Lucozade’s actions and ongoing investment in sport, which will continue regardless of the Levy. Dr Mark Saxon, from Coca Cola UK, suggested the Government should fund sports in schools regardless of the amount raised with the Levy.

Tim Rycroft, Corporate Affairs Director at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF)



Tim Rycroft started by explaining the FDF is a trade association representing the UK’s food and drink manufacturers, the largest manufacturing sector in the UK. He admitted that initially he was not personally happy with the Childhood Obesity Strategy as it seemed to position itself against the industry. He agreed with Coca Cola UK on his disappointment with the Levy, mentioning that targeting only sugar is an ineffective way to tackle obesity, as obesity is caused by excess calories from any nutrient.

Moreover, Tim Rycroft argued Soft Drinks companies recognize their responsibility in tackling obesity and type 2 diabetes and are already making great progress to reduce sugar from their products, achieving a 16% reduction between 2012 and 2016. He mentioned that in 2015 the industry voluntarily agreed to a calorie reduction goal of 20% by 2020, more than any other industry. He also believes food and drink manufacturers already provide a wide variety of great-tasting, safe and nutritious products which are affordable and available to everyone.

Tim Rycroft said voluntary change is quicker than a mandated change. He mentioned, as an example, how voluntary efforts have practically eliminated artificial Trans fatty acids from the UK diet and reformulation to reduce salt has helped achieve an 11% drop in intakes since 2005.

However, Tim Rycroft also admitted to being positively surprised with the government’s willingness to consult with the industry and recognize the industry’s efforts to help. He added that the FDF is committed to working in partnership with Government to come up with holistic and coordinated interventions to tackle obesity and type 2 diabetes in the UK.

Keith Vaz MP thanked the presence of all and informed the next meeting will be on the 1st of March on the Safety and Inclusion of Children with Medical Conditions at School.


[1] SACN Carbohydrates and Health report, July 2015

[2] Change4Life Sugar Smart, accessed 1 November 2016

[3] PHE 2015. Sugar Reduction: The evidence for action. Annexe 5b: Food supply. A secondary analysis of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) to assess the potential impact of reformulation on sugar intakes.



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