On 6 June 2024 the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe (Labour) to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to incentivise the food and drinks industry to reformulate their products to use less processed sugar and healthier natural alternatives.

Lord Brooke is a member of the House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee. This special inquiry committee is in the process of investigating the role of foods in a healthy diet and tackling obesity, including considering the impacts of foods high in sugar, salt and fat, as well as ‘ultra-processed’ foods.[1]

1. Why is too much sugar a problem?

The NHS explains that eating too much sugar can cause tooth decay and contribute towards people consuming a higher calorie diet than they need, leading to weight gain.[2] Being overweight can increase the risk of health problems such as heart disease, some cancers and type two diabetes.

The NHS makes a distinction between ‘free sugars’ and sugar found naturally in milk, fruit and vegetables. Free sugars are any sugar added to food or drink, for example in biscuits, cereals and fizzy drinks, as well as sugars in honey, syrups, nectars and fruit juices. The NHS advises people to limit their intake of free sugars.

2. Government measures aimed at reducing sugar, saturated fat and salt consumption

In recent years, successive governments have introduced measures aimed at reducing the public’s consumption of foods high in salt, saturated fats and sugar. They include:

  • Reduction and reformulation voluntary programme.[3] First launched in 2016, the sugar, salt and calorie reduction and reformulation programme is a series of voluntary initiatives designed to encourage the food industry to reduce the levels of sugar, salt and calories in processed foods and drinks. The programme is overseen by the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, which is part of the Department of Health and Social Care.
  • Soft drinks industry levy. In the 2016 budget David Cameron’s government announced a soft drinks industry levy targeted at producers and importers of soft drinks that contained more than 5g of sugar per 100ml.[4] The levy was implemented through the Finance Act 2017 and came into effect in April 2018. The two current rates of the levy are the standard rate (18p per litre), applied to drinks with sugar content between 5g and up to (but not including) 8g per 100ml, and the higher rate (24p per litre), applied to drinks with sugar content equal to or greater than 8g per 100ml.
  • Advertising restrictions. Advertising codes place restrictions on how products with high fat, salt and/or sugar content are marketed.[5] For example, advertisers cannot target children with adverts for food or soft drinks high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS). The Health and Care Act 2022 introduced new advertising restrictions for HFSS foods in the UK. The restrictions included a 9pm watershed for HFSS food advertisements on television and UK on-demand programmes, and a prohibition on paid-for advertising of unhealthy food and drink products online. The restrictions were originally due to come into force in January 2023 but were delayed by the government.[6] Following consultation, the restrictions are now due to come into force on 1 October 2025.[7]
  • Location and promotion restrictions. The Food (Promotion and Placement) (England) Regulations 2021 partly came into force on 1 October 2022. The placement part of the regulations limits which locations in certain shops can be occupied by HFSS food and drinks. For example, supermarkets must no longer display HFSS foods at store entrances, aisle ends and checkouts.
  • Calorie labelling. In July 2021 the government laid the Calorie Labelling (Out of Home Sector) (England) Regulations 2021. The regulations entered into force on 6 April 2022. The regulations imposed a legal requirement on businesses in England with more than 250 employees, including fast food outlets, restaurants and supermarkets, to display calorie information for non-prepacked food and drinks.
  • Updated public sector food procurement standards. In its 2018 plan ‘Childhood obesity: A plan for action—chapter 2’, the government committed to updating public sector nutritional standards. The new technical guidance, published in August 2021, guides schools and other public bodies to use low or no-sugar options, as well as other healthy choices.[8]

3. Reformulating products to reduce sugar content

A 2021 note from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) evaluated the evidence on product reformulation:

There is consensus among international and national public health stakeholders, including the World Health Organization and UK public health bodies, that reformulation of food and drink products is a useful tool to promote healthier diets and improve public health, as it does not rely on changing people’s conscious eating and drinking habits.

Reformulation to improve products’ nutrition profiles can be done either by increasing levels of certain ingredients (such as vitamins or fibre) or by reducing others (such as free sugar, salt or saturated fat). Additional reasons to reformulate include environmental, ethical or supply chain benefits, as well as reducing cost.[9]

In 2016, the government introduced a sugar reduction programme as part of its childhood obesity strategy. This followed a 2015 recommendation from the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition which advised that the recommendations for sugar intake be lowered to no more than 5% of daily energy intake, halving the previous recommendation.[10] The aim was to meet a 20% reduction in sugar in certain food and drinks by 2020, with voluntary industry engagement. In December 2022, the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities published a final report on the programme.[11]

Table 1. Selected findings from the sugar reduction programme[12]

Products designed to be consumed in the home Products designed to be consumed outside the home or by take away
  • The average sugar reduction was 3.5% between 2015 and 2020.
  • Some specific foods saw larger reductions, for example 14.9% for breakfast cereals and 13.5% for yoghurts and fromage frais.
  • The average sugar reduction was 0.2% between 2017 and 2020.
  • Cakes, for example, saw a decrease of 8.2% in their sugar content; however, other foods showed an increase, for example ice cream, lollies and sorbets saw a rise of 0.5%.

In answer to an oral question on 12 September 2023, Lord Markham, a parliamentary under secretary of state at the Department of Health and Social Care, restated the government’s ambition to reach a 20% reduction. He said:

We are seeing companies reformulate food. But it is something we will keep under review, and we will do more if we need to.[13]

Organisations including Action on Sugar are calling for a mandatory, rather than a voluntary, programme of sugar reduction.[14]

The Office for Health Improvement and Disparities report also evaluated the impact of the soft drinks levy. It said:

  • The percentage change in sales weighted average sugar was down 46% from 2015 and decreases were similar across all socioeconomic groups (reductions of between 44% to 47%).
  • Total sugar purchased per household from drinks subject to the soft drinks industry levy had decreased across all socioeconomic groups. The reduction was largest in group E (people on long-term state benefits, casual and lowest grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only) at 38.4%, and then was similar across all remaining socioeconomic groups (between 28.0% and 36.5% reduction).[15]

In March 2024 the government confirmed that businesses were being given until the end of 2025 to deliver the sugar and calorie reduction targets through the voluntary reformulation programme, citing the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the food sector as the reason for the extension.[16] A month earlier, it said a separate final assessment of industry progress on reducing the sugar and calorie content of milk-based drinks was expected to be published later in the year.[17] It added that HM Treasury would reconsider the exemption of milk-based drinks from the soft drinks levy if insufficient reductions had been achieved by 2021.

The Institute for Government (IfG) assessed that the soft drinks levy has “enjoyed broad support” as a “win-win policy for both public health and industry”.[18] However, the IfG noted growing calls to extend the policy to other foods. It concluded:

What is clear is that with concerning public health trends persisting, at a time public services and in particular the NHS are under immense strain, analysis suggests a policy response to obesity should be a priority for the government.[19]

4. Read more

Cover image by Mae Mu on Unsplash.


  1. House of Lords Food, Diet and Obesity Committee, ‘Call for evidence launched on the links between food, diet and obesity’, 19 February 2024. See also: House of Lords Liaison Committee, ‘New committee activity in 2024’, 23 November 2023, HL Paper 12 of session 2023–24, pp 17–22. Return to text
  2. NHS, ‘Sugar: The facts’, 19 May 2023. Return to text
  3. Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, ‘Sugar, salt and calorie reduction and reformulation’, 15 February 2024. Return to text
  4. HM Treasury, ‘Budget 2016: George Osborne’s speech’, 16 March 2016. Return to text
  5. House of Commons Library, ‘Advertising to children’, 20 December 2023, pp 35–55. Return to text
  6. Prime Minister’s Office, ‘PM backs public’s right to choose with delay to BOGOF restrictions’, 17 June 2023. Return to text
  7. Department of Health and Social Care, ‘Restricting promotions of products high in fat, sugar and salt: Enforcement’, 21 July 2021. Return to text
  8. Department of Health and Social Care, ‘Government buying standards for food and catering services: Nutrition standards—technical guidance’, August 2021. Return to text
  9. Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, ‘Food and drink reformulation to reduce fat, sugar and salt’, 2 February 2021. Return to text
  10. Public Health England, ‘SACN carbohydrates and health report’, 17 July 2015. Return to text
  11. Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, ‘Sugar reduction programme: Industry progress 2015 to 2020’, 1 December 2022. Return to text
  12. As above. Return to text
  13. Oral question on ‘Children’s health: Sugar’, HL Hansard, 12 September 2023, col 784. Return to text
  14. Action on Sugar, ‘What is next? The UK’s sugar reduction programme’, November 2022. Return to text
  15. Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, ‘Sugar reduction programme: industry progress 2015 to 2020’, 1 December 2022. Return to text
  16. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Nutrition (19909)’, 27 March 2024. Return to text
  17. House of Commons, ‘Written question: Soft drinks: Sugar (13465)’, 14 February 2024. Return to text
  18. Institute for Government, ‘Sugar tax’, 14 November 2022. Return to text
  19. As above. Return to text