24 January 2023

Reducing calories by 10% is the latest naive, pointless wheeze from the public health philosopher kings


Public Health England (PHE) is dead but its terrible ideas live on. In 2015, PHE initiated a ruse in which it planned to remove 20% of the sugar from most processed food. The target was set for 2020 and the agency started working with its ‘stakeholders’ in the food industry to achieve ‘health by stealth’. 

The idea was that the companies would slyly remove sugar from their trusted brands and consumers would lose weight without having to make any effort. It was assumed that we wouldn’t notice the taste of artificial sweeteners because we are creatures of habit. So long as the packaging looks the same, we will mindlessly consume the same brands in the same quantities as we always do.

It didn’t quite work out like that. The food industry had to break it to PHE that you can’t take the sugar out of a cake or chocolate bar without compromising the size and texture, not to mention the taste. Some products, such as boiled sweets, consist of almost nothing but sugar and cannot be reformulated. Jam has to contain a certain amount of sugar otherwise it cannot legally be sold as jam. In any case, people will not buy artificially sweetened cakes, biscuits, spreads and confectionery because they taste horrible.

PHE hadn’t considered any of this. It had all seemed so simple when they had their planning meeting. And so they quietly changed to target to allow companies to shrink their products by 20%. The companies did not object to this, especially since they had no intention of reducing the price. They had been engaging in shrinkflation for years, to such an extent that chocolate bars were now so small that people often bought two of them instead of one. This suited the food companies but did not meet the government’s public health objectives. 

The PHE scheme did lead to some genuine reformulation in certain categories. When a progress report was published in 2020, the agency proudly reported that the sugar content of yoghurts, breakfast cereals and ‘morning goods’ had dropped by 12.9%, 13.3% and 5.6% respectively. It announces that ‘overall there was a 3.0% reduction in total sugar per 100g in products sold between baseline (2015) and year 3 (2019)’. 

A 3% decline was a far cry from the 20% reduction hoped for when the scheme was launched, but there was worse news to come. Consumers had noticed that their favourite products had lost their taste and stopped buying them. Sales of yoghurts fell by 15.9% and sales of breakfast cereals fell by 13.9%. By contrast, sales of chocolate went up by 16.3% and sales of sweets rose by 7.2%. In total, sugar consumption in England increased from 723,000 tonnes in 2015 to 742,000 tonnes in 2019. Great success!

Few people are aware of the hilarious failure of the sugar reduction scheme but it deserves to feature in any list of great government cock ups. PHE also set the food industry a target of reducing the number of calories in its products by 20% by 2024, but nothing much more was heard about this before the agency was abolished for being incompetent in 2021.

Bad ideas never die in ‘public health’ and so it was no great surprise to see the reformulation wheeze crop up again this week. The state-funded charity Nesta published a report calling for a 10% reduction in the calorie content of a range of ‘discretionary’ foods, including ready meals, crisps, pastries, chocolate bars, crumpets, cakes, croissants, salad condiments and biscuits by 2030. It says that the target should be mandatory this time, with an arm of the state ‘given the statutory powers to design, set and monitor the targets’. For good measure, it also wants food to be subjected to ‘other fiscal measures to ensure all parts of the sector take action, such as a salt and sugar tax’.

Nesta has learnt no lessons from the PHE fiasco. It doesn’t even mention it. Reading the report, one gets the impression that its authors think they have come up with a brilliant new idea. They briefly acknowledge that their cunning plan ‘is dependent on consumers not changing their purchasing behaviour’, but they don’t seem to appreciate what an heroic assumption this is. There is plenty of evidence showing that people respond to less calorific food by switching to tastier (i.e. higher calorie) products or by eating more of the same product. A randomised controlled trial found that people who are given reduced-sugar products to eat compensate by eating more and therefore do not lose weight.

The authors are unable to point to any evidence that their proposal will work, unless you count their own theoretical model which reckons that ’38 calories per person per day could be removed from diets’ if the target is met and that this ‘could save around 300,000 Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY) over a 25 year period’. But 300,000 QALYs over 25 years isn’t very much – it equates to about 60 fewer obesity-related deaths a year – and a model that assumes a policy will work is not evidence that the policy will work.

One searches the report in vain for some practical detail. What happens if a company fails to meet its mandatory target? What is a company supposed to do if it has already reformulated a product in response to the PHE scheme? Will it have to do it all again? Which food companies should be included? Will the local bakery be obliged to take the sugar out of its gingerbread men and provide ‘mandatory data reporting’ to the government to prove it? And if people are worried about their weight, shouldn’t they avoid cakes and chocolate bars altogether rather than rely on the government making them slightly less fattening?

Above all, how are companies supposed to take calories out of a wide range of products without consumers noticing? That is the question Public Health England could never answer. If you take the sugar and fat out of a product, what do you replace it with? You can get away with substituting artificial sweeteners for sugar in soft drinks because sugar is not required to maintain their size, weight and texture, but it doesn’t work with food. And you can’t just put protein in everything.

The people at Nesta don’t worry about such matters. They are the philosopher kings moving pieces around on a cosmic chessboard. Just set the targets, put them into legislation and let the boffins in industry worry about the details. It never seems to occur to them that if the industry could strip the calories out of food without consumers noticing, they would have done so by now. Low-calorie food that tastes as good as high-calorie food is exactly what people want. Many consumers would happily pay more for it. It is the Holy Grail of the food industry. Any company that cracked the code would become fabulously rich. It is not for want of trying that it doesn’t exist.

The idea of tackling obesity by taking the calories out of food is the kind of thing a four-year old would come up with. There could be no better illustration of naive idealism of ‘public health’ academia than this cretinously simplistic idea rearing its head once again.

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Christopher Snowdon is the Head of Lifestyle Economics at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.