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Call for a Levy on Manufacturers to Reduce Excessive Calories in Unhealthy Food

7 August 2019

Embargoed until Wednesday 7th August 2019, 00.01 hours (UK time)

  • Companies making processed foods with excessive calories (i.e. energy dense) should be taxed, says Action on Sugar and Action on Salt to help encourage product reformulation and reduce fat, saturated fat and sugar
  • The experts criticise the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) for ignoring the importance of fat reduction to prevent obesity
  • Cakes and biscuits must be included in Public Health England’s (PHE) long awaited Calorie Reduction Programme

Media Coverage

Today, Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, based at Queen Mary University of London is calling on the government to introduce a calorie (energy density) levy on all calorie dense processed foods that meet an agreed criteria set by government, similar to the successful Soft Drinks Industry Levy [1] (SDIL, widely known as the ‘Sugar Tax’), whereby manufacturers are forced to pay a levy to the government if they fail to reduce excessive calories, i.e. energy, in their processed unhealthy foods. [2]

This would encourage product reformulation to reduce both fat, in particular saturated fat as recommended in the new guidance from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN),[3] as well as sugar in unhealthy products. Fat is a bigger contributor to calories in the diet than sugar and therefore essential that manufacturers are encouraged to reduce both in order to tackle the UK’s obesity crisis. [4]

The levy would ensure companies are held to account if they make processed unhealthy food with excessive calories as part of a comprehensive set of measures to encourage them to develop healthier, lower calorie products. This can help reduce the excessive calorie intake at a population level which is currently contributing to the rise in childhood obesity. Compared to those with ideal body weights, overweight and obese children consume between approximately 140 and 500 excess kcals per day.[5] Funds raised from the levy must be ringfenced to go towards improving children’s health by investing in tackling childhood obesity.

Despite PHE's Sugar Reduction Programme referencing that ‘sugar reduction should be achieved without increasing the level of saturated fat within a product and, where possible, be accompanied by calorie reduction’,[6] both Action on Sugar and Action on Salt say it does not go far enough to reduce calories and are calling on the government body and the DHSC to actively encourage companies to also reduce fat as well as sugar. Reducing calories from saturated fat could, according to SACN’s 2019 review of the totality of evidence, reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) and lower cholesterol.

A recent study, published in nutrition journal Nutrients by researchers at Queen Mary University London, showed that when compared to sugar reformulation alone, fat and sugar reformulation could result in a much larger reduction in excess calories to reduce obesity. In the study, which analysed more than 850 cakes and biscuits, the researchers found that fat contributes significantly more to the calorie content of cakes and biscuits than sugar i.e. the more fat they contain, the more calories they contain, regardless of their sugar content. There is a huge variation of fat within the same categories of cakes and biscuits indicating that reformulation is easily achievable.

For example:

  • Fat in chocolate cakes varied two-fold, from 12.2g to 27.5g per 100g
  • Fat in Victoria sponges varied three-fold, from 8.5g to 24.7g per 100g
  • Saturated fat in Rich Tea biscuits varied six-fold, from 1.2g to 7.2g per 100g

PHE currently has two separate reformulation programmes to tackle the obesity epidemic – the Sugar Reduction Programme and the yet-to be detailed Calorie Reduction Programme, which is illogical. For example, cakes and biscuits are included in the Sugar Reduction Programme but not in the Calorie Reduction Programme, despite them being categories that contribute to excess calorie intake from sugar as well as fat. Action on Salt and Action on Sugar is urging these widely consumed unhealthy foods, along with other sweet and fatty categories such as chocolate confectionery, ice creams, puddings, chocolate spreads, morning goods and milk-based drinks, to be included in the long-awaited Calorie Reduction Programme.

Graham MacGregor, Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine at Queen Mary University of London and Chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said: “The UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy has been remarkable and unique in that it allows for significant product reformulation by manufacturers in order to avoid paying the levy. This has already resulted in a much bigger reduction of sugar content of drinks in the UK than originally anticipated, as well as ring fencing £340million of income directly from manufacturers, not the public, to spend on improving children’s health. It is imperative that this levy continues.

“Additionally, the same could be achieved in creating a levy to reduce excess calories but we need a firm commitment from HM Treasury and The Department of Health and Social Care to make this a reality and to implement a robust evaluation system to fill in the evidence gaps. This levy should be invested back in a much more comprehensive approach to prevent obesity in children.”

Registered Nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar based at Queen Mary University of London said: “Action on Sugar’s strategy to prevent obesity and Type 2 diabetes calls on all food manufacturers to also reduce fat, especially saturated fat, in addition to sugar. It is important that the government makes this clear to manufacturers. It does not make sense to have cakes and biscuits and many other sweet solid food categories only as part of the Sugar Reduction Programme. They must be part of the Calorie Reduction Programme, because sugar reduction alone is not enough to tackle childhood obesity.”

Roberta Alessandrini, Lead author and Researcher at Queen Mary University of London said: “Our data shows that cakes and biscuits contain an excessive amount of fat and saturated fat which provide most of the calories in these products. Calorie reduction in these products could be achieved through the addition of fruit, vegetables and whole grains that contain dietary fibre which has demonstrated positive health effects.”

Katharine Jenner, Campaign Director of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt adds: “Manufacturers are simply not doing enough. If the government is really committed to helping the less well off, they need to tackle the food industry and a feasibility study needs to be undertaken without delay. An ‘excess calorie levy’ would encourage manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of their unhealthy foods and most importantly, tackle the thousands who suffer the consequences of a poor diet, leading to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.”


For more information contact: David Clarke @ Rock PR: E: M: 07773 225516

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Notes to editors:

Action on Sugar is a group of specialists concerned with sugar and its effects on health. It is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high sugar diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of sugar in food and drink products.

Action on Salt is a group concerned with salt and its effects on health, supported by 24 expert scientific members. Action on Salt is successfully working to reach a consensus with the food industry and Government over the harmful effects of a high salt diet, and bring about a reduction in the amount of salt in processed foods as well as salt added to cooking, and at the table.

1 The 'Sugar Tax' will help to reduce sugar in soft drinks and tackle childhood obesity.

2 Nutrient Profiling Technical Guidance. 492.pdf

3 SACN. Saturated fats and health. report_on_saturated_fat_and_health.pdf

4 Public Health England and Food Standards Agency. NDNS: Years 7 and 8 (combined). Results of the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) Rolling Programme for 2014 to 2015 and 2015 to 2016. 2018. Available online: data/file/699241/NDNS_results_years_7_and_8.pdf

5 Calorie reduction: The scope and ambition for action. _Evidence_Document.pdf

6 Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20%. eduction_achieving_the_20_.pdf 



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