Public Health England’s new guideline for the food industry is unlikely to curb obesity

Public Health England (PHE) has published new guidelines for the food industry, setting out approaches manufacturers can take to reduce the amount of sugar children consume. The guidelines challenge the industry to cut sugar content in nine food categories, including breakfast cereals, puddings and confectionery, by 20% by 2020, and by 5% this year. Are these guidelines fit for purpose, or are they too little, too late?

Obesity rates in the UK have risen dramatically over the past 20 years, leading to around one in four people being obese. Although these increases have slowed in recent years, an upward trend still continues. More worryingly, rates of childhood obesity have increased greatly, so that around one in five 11-year-olds are now obese. These increases are worrying because obesity is a significant risk factor for a number of chronic diseases including type 2 diabetes, cancer and heart disease.

The government spends more money each year on obesity than it does the police or fire service. So identifying ways to prevent or reverse obesity are vital to the health and wealth of the UK.

Not a one-strategy problem

There are many factors that could explain the global rise in obesity rates, but it is widely accepted that the main cause of obesity is an imbalance between calories consumed and calories expended. We obtain our calories from the macronutrients in our food and drink, namely fats, protein and carbohydrates, including sugars. Global sugar consumption has almost doubled since 1980 and around 170m tonnes will be consumed in 2016-17. This has almost certainly contributed to the increased obesity levels we now see, with research showing that consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks is associated with obesity in children.

Global sugar consumption has almost doubled since 1980. Alf Ribeiro/

So it is easy to see why so many people are concerned about sugar – and why it has become a big news story in the past few years. It is, however, dangerous to become fixated on single factors in the quest to reverse the rise of obesity levels. Body weight is a complex issue, governed by internal factors including hunger and metabolism, and external factors such as food availability and economic development.

Reducing the causes of obesity down to a single factor has a poor precedent. For 30 years, official recommendations on diet were to limit dietary fat, a policy that has been described as “disastrous”. Are we making the same mistake with sugar?

Although sugar consumption has increased, we are eating too many calories overall. A report in 2014 suggested that the UK has the world’s sixth-highest daily calorie intake. This is possibly because many people are thought to significantly underestimate the number of calories they eat each day.

At the same time, the amount of time children spend watching television or using computers has almost doubled, while only 66% of men and 56% of women get the recommended levels of exercise each week. Collectively, these findings show that we eat too much and don’t exercise enough. Cutting sugar consumption will help, but it is unlikely to be a silver bullet for obesity.

A start, but not enough

A major issue with the new PHE guideline is that they are voluntary. There is no legal requirement for food manufacturers to reduce the sugar content of their food – they are, after all, guidelines and not law. It remains to be seen how many manufacturers will take the guidelines seriously and whether any changes they make to recipes or serving sizes will have an impact on people’s weight in the long term.

I welcome the new guidelines because they put pressure on food makers to reduce the sugar content of their products, but they can only form a small part of what needs to be a broader approach to solving the obesity crisis.