Sugar tax stick can make voluntary deal work, says government nutritionist

The government’s top nutrition advisor has defended the voluntary approach to tackling childhood obesity.

Dr Alison Tedstone, national director with responsibility of diet, nutrition and obesity in the health and wellbeing directorate of Public Health England (PHE), claimed that a “more structured approach” together with the introduction of the levy on sugar-sweetened drinks have incentivised the industry.

Speaking at Food Matters live in London, Tedstone admitted that there was no net improvement across any food group during the time of the Public Health Responsibility Deal. However, the new childhood obesity plan, which also leans heavily towards voluntary targets and industry-led commitments, can succeed.

“I’m proud of the [childhood obesity] plan,” she said. The levy on sugary drinks, set to come into force in April, has shown the government is “serious” about this: “[It] has completely changed the context of sugar reformulation work,” she added.

An industry-led programme to remove 20% of sugar from the products children eat most by 2020 provides the foundation to the plan. And Tedstone confirmed that PHE will publish the results of the top 20 best-selling products in each of the nine categories tasked with reformulation. The report, due to be released in March, will show whether individual brands have managed to cut sugar content or not.

Research presented at the Sugar Reduction Summit in London last month suggested that some categories are struggling more than others. “We don’t know if it’s going to work [but] data monitoring and transparency is at the absolute heart of the programme,” Tedstone explained. “We can go further on reformulation.”

Figures from PHE's National Child Measurement Programme released in October show obesity increased for the second year in a row in reception year children.

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