Sugar Levy

This month, the government quietly released a report that found its own sugar reduction strategy had failed many times over. The volume of sugar purchased in the UK in selected food and drink categories fell by just 3.5% between 2015 and 2020 – almost six times below the 20% target.  

It’s clear we are overdue a rethink in how we improve the nutritional quality of food in the UK. There is a broad consensus among public health officials, food industry experts and health charities that action is needed. Poor diets have a negative impact on both public health and the economy, estimated to cost 2.8% of global GDP, similar to the impact of smoking. There is growing public awareness of the benefits of healthy food. Over two-thirds of the UK public say they would support more government regulation to promote healthier products. 

It is hard to underestimate the importance of nutritious food when it comes to public health. A study published in the Lancet found poor diet was a risk factor that could play a part in one in five deaths among adults worldwide. These problems are set to continue in the UK as the cost of living crisis squeezes household incomes, curbing the ability of those on a lower income to buy fresh and healthy food.  

The food and drink industry has an outsized influence on people’s diets and long-term health. While the causes of diet-related ill health are complex, an environment flooded with unhealthy products is a significant driver. It’s high time the government stepped up with tougher, targeted regulation for food and drink manufacturers.  

We need to see mandatory programmes that push food companies to gradually reformulate recipes to lower the amount of ‘less healthy’ ingredients such as sugar, salt and saturated fats. There is also a role for well-designed taxes to help provide the right incentives for companies to act as part of a comprehensive public health strategy, as suggested by the Obesity Health Alliance. The soft drinks industry levy, also known as the ‘sugar tax’, resulted in the average sugar content in soft drinks falling by 29% – which it is estimated will result in 74,000 fewer young people being overweight over the next decade.

In the meantime, there is plenty businesses and their investors can do. The financial sector has enormous potential to drive change through effective stewardship of the companies it invests in. Investors can work with companies to hold them to account for their impact on public health.  

They should urge companies to prioritise healthier products and ensure healthier food is more accessible and affordable. This would include decisions on the nutritional quality, labelling, marketing and advertising of the products they sell.  

Companies should disclose the healthiness of their product portfolio against a government-endorsed nutrient profiling model, and use this as a basis to set stretching targets to increase the sales percentage of healthier food. Improved transparency is vital for tracking progress and accountability. 

ShareAction’s Healthy Markets initiative convenes a coalition of investors to raise the bar on health. It is encouraging that 65% of the UK grocery market has now set targets to increase sales in healthier food and drink. Manufacturers starting to act include Britvic, which has committed to making 88% of its products non-HFSS by the end of 2022.    

A key focus in 2023 will be tackling the out-of-home sector – fast food burger and pizza outlets, bakeries and cafés – as meals consumed out of the home now account for a quarter of calorie intake in the UK.  These meals are often high in fat, sugar or salt and served in large portions.  

Improving public health is increasingly a priority issue for investors and we hope this momentum will continue to catalyse progress across the food and drink sector.