Without a doubt, the past few weeks have been all about sugar. Both the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and Public Health England (PHE) have brought out instrumental documents which are set to shake up the lives of the food industry and consumers in equal measure.

In this issue we discuss these reports, along with some new products, which are taking the ‘health food’ market by storm.

SACN Report

 SACN is an advisory committee of independent experts that provides advice to PHE as well as other government agencies and departments. Following seven years of work, their draft report on Carbohydrate and Health was released on Thursday 26th June. The report is now open for consultation until September, with the final report being published at the end of 2014/early 2015. Following official sign-off, the report then goes to PHE who will be able to put forward potential policy changes to UK health ministers.

Work by SACN into the effect of carbohydrates on health began long before the media frenzy on sugar but the report covers many of the aspects that have recently gained such huge media coverage. The key aims of the report were to:

1. Review the evidence on dietary carbohydrates and colorectal, cardio-metabolic and oral health

2. Review the definitions of carbohydrates in the diet

3. To review current Daily Reference Intakes (DRVs) for carbohydrates

Following a lengthy review of the evidence, collected from hundreds of systematic reviews, SACN has put forward the following suggestions:

1. The DRVs for total carbohydrates should be maintained at a population average of approximately 50% dietary energy.

2. The definition ’free sugars’ should be adopted in the UK and this should replace the currently used term of Non Milk Extrinsic Sugars (NMES). The definition of free sugars should be, “All mono and disaccharides added to foods by manufacturers, cooks or the consumer plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups or fruit juices.” Milk sugar and sugars intrinsically present within fruit and vegetables DO NOT count.

3. The DRV for free sugars should be at a population average of approximately 5% dietary energy. This equates to around 25g of free sugars per day (or approximately one can of coke).

4. Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by children and adults should be minimised.

5. Fibre consumption should be increased from 24g to 30g per day.

These conclusions by SACN, although not final, have certainly caused shock throughout the food industry. Their fear will now turn to whether PHE act on these suggestions and advise ministers to make fundamental changes to key public health messages, such as altering the 5 A DAY criteria or adjusting the eatwell plate. Will tighter regulations be enforced to help the public meet this 25g per day target or will there be a call for a new Responsibility Deal pledge, focused specifically on sugar reduction? The answer to some of these questions is undoubtedly yes. With regards to voluntary pledges, let us not forget that the food industry are already awash with them via the Responsibility Deal— is there room, appetite or indeed need for a pledge specific to sugar reduction? Currently sugar reduction is addressed within the larger umbrella of the calorie reduction pledge, to which many companies are signed.

No amount of tighter regulation or changes to public health programmes will improve public health if consumers are firstly not educated on what is changing, and secondly, if they are not given the tools to make these informed decisions when they shop. For example, currently on food labels, total sugars but not free sugars are displayed, making it hard for consumers to assess how much free sugar they are actually eating. Also, whilst fibre can be voluntarily included on back of pack it does not need to be mandatorily provided and it cannot be provided on front of pack. This means that consumers unaware of which foods are rich sources of fibre will struggle to use food labels to help them pick higher fibre products.

This is a confusing and concerning time for certain sectors of the food industry and particularly some brands. However, the premise should be taken that things will change and the sooner brands are aware of and react to these changes, the sooner they will be able to satisfy both governmental and consumer needs.

PHE sugar reduction pledge

PHE is an operationally autonomous executive agency of the Department of Health who is currently putting together draft recommendations to help inform the government’s thinking on sugar in the diet. This work is being carried out in light of the SACN report on carbohydrates (please refer to story above).

The SACN report shows that high sugar diets not only lead to excess calorie consumption and therefore weight gain, but they also make it harder for individuals to control their energy intake.

It is perhaps worrying then, if not at all surprising, that intakes of sugar for all population groups exceeds current recommendations. The implication of this, in conjunction with other poor dietary decisions, is that diet and obesity related diseases, including cardiovascular diseases and some cancers cost the NHS at least £11 billion of tax payer’s money each year.

It is for these reasons that SACN, PHE and the government are working hard to review the evidence and, more importantly, look at how government, the food industry and consumers can work together to help reduce our overall sugar consumption to within reasonable limits.

To help the process, PHE has recently released a report titled: ‘Sugar reduction, responding to the challenge’. The document highlights the work currently being undertaken by PHE/government and the food industry as well as actions for the future to help reduce sugar intake, including:

1. Launching a digital marketing package to help families and individuals reduce their sugar intakes followed by a focused national behaviour change campaign on sugar reduction in January 2015.

2. A refresh of the 5 A DAY campaign, including reconsideration of advice on fruit juice and smoothies and an assessment of how the 5 A DAY message might apply to dishes such as ready meals.

3. Advising on any changes to nutritional messaging following the finalised advice from SACN on carbohydrates and health. This may involve changes to long established education tools such as the eatwell plate.

4. Evidence reviews and further analysis to allow in-depth consideration of possible key areas for future discussions. These include advertising of foods to children, taxation on sugar-sweetened drinks, the role of the food industry, food procurement across the public sector and education and training.

5. Supporting the Department of Health in its work with the food and drink industry.

These actions, if moved forward, would have serious implications for the food industry and consumers alike. However, such changes will be needed if consumers are to achieve the recommendation of limiting free sugars to no more than 5% of daily energy intake, as proposed by SACN.

Sugar quota restrictions set to lift

Last year it was announced that the European Union’s ‘Common Agricultural Policy’ (CAP) was in for a series of reforms.

Of particular relevance, in light of SACNs and PHEs reports, is the plan to lift sugar production quotas in 2017. Under the current system, production of sugar within the EU is restricted to 13.3 million tonnes a year. Lifting this quota will undoubtedly make sugar cheaper for food and drink manufacturers.

PHE, among others, has expressed concern about the change, saying that, “It may influence sugar intakes and public health”. This is of no surprise considering the amount of work that is currently being undertaken by PHE and SACN to review the impact of carbohydrates on health, along with the recent announcement recommending that daily sugar intakes should be reduced from current recommendations, in order to curb obesity rates and the rise of diet-related diseases.

The fear is that if sugar is made even cheaper, then manufacturers will have little incentive to reduce sugar levels within products, especially if reduction is only based on voluntary action (i.e. via the government’s Responsibility Deal pledges).

However, on the other side of the coin, the food and drink industry has insisted that the causes of obesity are, “far wider” than sugar. From a non-diet related perspective, Gavin Partington, Director General of the British Soft Drinks Association has said, “this is a great step forward for the competitiveness of the British manufacturing industry and the tens of thousands of jobs that it supports.”

This reform will certainly ensure that sugar remains front page news and highlights to us the competing priorities that exist between economy, industry and public health.

‘Superfoods’ used to push functional food sales

Increasingly, brands are using ‘superfoods’ to boost their products functional credentials with the aim of increasing sales.

For example, Tropicana has trialled an ‘energising’ juice with Guarana (an apparent ‘superfood’ that contains caffeine) whilst Innocent has launched a range of functional smoothies that contain an array of ingredients ranging from flax seeds to Echinacea.

How these products sit with the strict health claim rules of European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is an interesting topic. Under the new rules, only 228 health claims have been approved and major brands such as Yakult and Actimel have had to change their whole brand positioning when EFSA did not authorise probiotics to be included in the approved list of health claims. Under current guidance the ‘superfoods’ term is not permitted under EU rules unless it is accompanied by an authorised health claim that explains to consumers why the product is good for their health.

This is an interesting if not rather muddy area and one where brands must tread carefully in order to remain within the regulatory framework protecting the use of nutrition and health claims.

Lentil-based bagged snacks from Burt’s

Consumer research shows a strong demand for healthy snacking alternatives that are tasty, satisfying and ‘different’. Achieving this is not an easy task, but premium crisp brand Burt’s has come up with a lentil-based bagged ‘crisp’, which seems to be hitting the spot. Each bag contains 99kcal (that magical one calorie off 100 has huge consumer sway) and is free from hydrogenated fat, colourings and preservatives.

New product developments within this emerging ‘healthy snacking sector’ are exciting but they do throw up the difficult balance of meeting consumer demand whilst not misleading them, through clever advertising, into buying products that may be healthier alternatives but are not entirely guilt free.

Interestingly however, Burt’s marketing director commented that, “Whilst 83% of consumers considered the health and nutritional content of food important, taste and quality remained most important for 96% of consumers”.

Protein drinks steal probiotic shelf space

Protein drinks are big business and the market area is booming, particularly with regards to ‘whey protein’ based products.

With sales on the up, retailers are quick off the mark to give their customers more of what they fancy. Indeed, Tesco has boosted the amount of space given to protein drinks in its ‘active health’ dairy section and perhaps somewhat controversially, reduced the facings for probiotic drinks. Surprising when you consider that the European probiotic market is set to grow by 6.7% by 2018. This highlights the current popularity in protein, which has long been the forgotten nutrient.

Under Tesco’s new layout, brands such as For Goodness Shakes and Upbeat now take up nearly one of two bays, having previously been on just two shelves.

The changes are being rolled out to 500 Tesco stores, with a spokesperson for Tesco saying, “We are delighted to offer a wide range of products to help customers make healthy choices, and protein drinks are an important area for our health-conscious shoppers.”