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Public Health England (PHE) has vowed to defend the industry amid criticism of shrinkage, after admitting sugar reduction targets for several key food categories will be impossible to hit unless products get smaller.

In an exclusive interview with The Grocer, PHE director of diet and obesity Alison Tedstone said products including chocolate bars, confectionery, cakes and biscuits would all have to shrink if industry was to achieve the government’s target of a 20% reduction in sugar by 2020.

The Grocer revealed in November that PHE was calling for a single-size portion cap of 125g for yoghurts, with suppliers in other categories set to follow suit.

But this week Tedstone for the first time admitted that without shrinkage many of the key sectors involved in sugar reduction talks would not meet the government targets.

“We accept it’s a really challenging timescale,” said Tedstone, with official sugar reduction targets due out next month.

“We will give guidance on the amount of sugar per 100g and some of them won’t hit that. But you can certainly reduce the portion size. For our waistlines we need smaller portions.

“PHE will support portion size reductions because there is a public health benefit for it, said Tedstone, and she promised to come out to praise the work that is done.

“We will absolutely celebrate portion size reduction and smaller portion sizes becoming the default.

“For example, for cakes it’s very difficult to take 20% of sugar out,” said Tedstone.

“You can take a bit out. But you can also reduce portion sizes. Think of sponge cake. You do not need three tiers, you need two, you don’t need icing on the side - you can just have it on the top. Think of muffins. You can certainly make them a bit smaller. You can add less sprinkles.”

PHE research claims 80% of consumers support smaller portion sizes in the war on sugar, although the industry has faced huge criticism over so-called ‘shrinkflation’, where products have been reduced in size without price reduction, most recently in this week’s Dispatches documentary on Channel 4.

“At the moment nobody actually says that this is a public health benefit and this is what the public are telling us they want,” said Tedstone. “Our job is to do that.”

She also accepted that what’s in the packet, ie the commodity costs, may only be a fraction of the cost of the product.

“They have their packaging, their production, their marketing, their distribution. So we understand why the price will not necessarily reduce.”

The Grocer understands there has also been fierce debate in talks with industry about the role of sweeteners. Tedstone categorically ruled out a future programme to target a reduction in sweeteners use, despite calls from health campaigners.

“Sweeteners will not be targeted. The safety data is very clear. PHE’s evidence base is very clear and the weight reduction studies shows they are helpful. All sweeteners are fine.”