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The UK’s Childhood Obesity Plan: What’s Next?

Published on October 11, 2016


In August 2016, the UK government released its childhood obesity plan, which plans to “reduce England’s rate of childhood obesity within the next 10 years by encouraging: industry to cut the amount of sugar in food and drinks; and primary school children to eat more healthily and stay active”.

There are three main elements to the plan:

– LEVY: a re-announcement of the soft drinks levy, which will charge producers and importers a price for drinks with added sugar according to the total amount of sugar (either 5g per 100ml or 8g per 100ml). This two-tiered levy is under consultation with industry, and will contribute to funding programmes for physical activity and balanced diets for school children. The levy will not immediately apply to pure fruit juices nor drinks with a high milk content.

– REFORMATULATION: a sugar reformulation programme, which aims to reduce overall sugar by 20% by 2020 from nine types of products children eat. This can be done through reducing sugar in products, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives.

– SCHOOLS: schools, physical activity and public sector estate. The strategy targets schools, setting targets to improve the health of children, which include: enabling children to exercise for at least 60 minutes per day, partly through improving the coordination of quality sport and physical activity programmes for schools; creating a healthy rating scheme for primary schools; and making school food healthier. The public sector estate should have a food environment designed so the easy choices are also the healthy ones.

Additionally it contains some other core elements:

– PROFILES: It reinforces that there will be changes to the sugar elements of the Ofcom High Fat Salt Sugar profile used to profile adverts appropriate for broadcast to under 16’s, to align it with the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) advice on carbohydrates.

– LABELLING: The plan reinforced the Government’s interest in informing consumer choice through Traffic Light Labelling, and again signalled that the sugar element of the approach would be altered in-line with SACN. The plan also suggested that it would review opportunities such as teaspoon labelling to communicate sugar levels to consumers .

There are notable absences in the plan that campaigners had pushed for – particularly those on advertising and promotions.

Insights and Considerations

Distrust – Industry, Campaigners and the General Public

There is a general feeling of distrust between industry, and campaigners and the general public. The reaction to the publication of the strategy points to campaigners and a general public that are suspicious of the food and beverage industry, which they accuse of lobbying the UK government in the design of this plan and pushing it to water down its strategy. There is also concern among industry that some businesses are playing their part in reducing obesity, and others are not.

Devolution and Childhood Obesity Plans

Scotland is interested to move on marketing and is discussing restrictions on junk food advertising. Food and beverage companies that straddle the United Kingdom’s borders will need to anticipate and plan for the prospect of multiple approaches within the UK.

Other nations are moving faster than the UK

The fact that other nations are moving faster than the UK presents a significant risk to the food and beverage industry. As other countries implement more stringent mandatory legislation affecting the food and beverage industry in the fight against childhood obesity, campaigners will use progress elsewhere to urge action in the UK.

Expectations of Business in this New Context

– There will be a strong emphasis on the out-of-home sector. After March 2017 when the first set of sugar reformulation targets are set, the plan will be extended to “include setting targets to reduce total calories in a wider range of products contributing to children’s calorie intake and across all sectors, including the out-of-home sector”. The out-of-home sector is perceived to have been laggards relative to retail and manufacturers, and Government will be watching to see that this time the sector plays its part.

– Sugar reduction without calorie or saturated fat increase. While the sugar reformulation targets are voluntary it is time for business to step up, and act as a partner for Government in reformulation.

– Informing consumer choice, and doing so creatively. Business should be transparent in communicating the contents and impact of their product, and should do so in an authentic manner. Mars Food did so in distinguishing between its “everyday” and “occasional” products.

Voluntary for now, mandatory in the future

This UK government has introduced voluntary, not mandatory targets in the childhood obesity strategy. In spite of this, businesses in the food and beverage sector should follow through on the plan’s guidelines and recommendations. Companies should design a plan to reduce sugar in the nine product groups by 2020, in order to demonstrate their willingness in contributing to helping the government address health challenges.

Monitoring change

There is a possibility that the strategy will be strengthened and/or extended to other products following the consultation process and during the current Prime Minister’s tenure. The food and beverage industry should mitigate this risk by designing and implementing their own public health strategy.

Influencing Consumer Choice – High Fat Salt Sugar (HFSS)-free zones

In order to influence consumer choice, it is possible that local government will ask for more planning regulation to create zones free from outlets selling HFSS products. While certainly a possibility, this is in fact likely to be unpopular with the general public and very difficult to implement. It is more likely that there will be pressure for all outlets to remove HFSS products from supermarket queuing lanes.

Establishing a level playing field

There are calls from different parties to make elements of this strategy mandatory, thereby establishing a level playing field between products and companies in the food and beverage industry. The British Retail Consortium has cited the need for mandatory participation in sugar reformulation in order for the programme to work.

Obesity, not sugar

While previous drives to combat obesity have been sugar-focused, it is worth noting that this strategy does allude to issues beyond sugar including excess calories and saturated fat. The government will review its recommendations on the consumption of saturated fats, such as those in butter and cheese.

About Sancroft

Sancroft is a sustainability consultancy with offices in London and Washington D.C. Founded in 1997 by former Secretary of State for the Environment, The Rt. Hon John Gummer, Lord Deben, Sancroft helps some of the world’s leading companies improve their environmental, ethical and social performance. Sancroft assists FMCG businesses and retailers such as Associated British Foods, The Coca-Cola Company, Greggs, Nestlé and Whitbread, in considering the impact of their products on the health and wellness of their customers and society. For further information or advice, please contact

Soft Drinks Industry Levy: 12 things you should know” (18 August 2016). Accessible at: industry-levy-12-things-you-should-know
HM Government Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action (August 2016). Accessible at:
Corporate Europe Observatory A spoonful of sugar: How the food lobby fights sugar regulation in the EU (July 2016). Accessible at:


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