giles brook quote web

Not all sugars are equal. Consumers know an orange isn’t the same as a Jaffa Cake, or that jelly sweets aren’t going to provide what natural yoghurt will.

The government also knows this. PHE currently has an expert team beavering away behind closed doors to finally put some clear boundaries in place to explain exactly how ‘free’ vs ‘intrinsic’ sugars differ.

New guidelines were due in February, and a change in children’s TV regulation and promotions is expected to follow, but this is complicated work and many fear this deadline may now move to July.

Which raises the question as to why, at such an important time, the very same governmental body has chosen to launch an app that throws all this great work and progress to the side. Change4Life’s new Sugar Smart app (launched by PHE) is a simple one: scan a barcode, and see an illustration of the cubes of sugar contained in that product, not differentiating whether these are free or intrinsic. Simple, trusted, and highly irresponsible.

While they have thankfully fallen short of putting raw fruit in the app, they have pitched natural sugars against refined ones on a level playing field, against all odds and common sense.

Anyone monitoring mums’ forums online will have seen a worrying increase in posts questioning whether fruit is the right solution for their children given its sugar content. An app as influential as this one doesn’t help these conversations.

The app’s inaccuracies have been widely publicised. In a move that looked like a backtrack, PHE last week announced a number of ‘baby products’ have been pulled from the app, apparently because they contained natural as well as refined sugars. Only a handful of products were pulled, leaving a limbo where hundreds of products that contain only natural sugars remain while those with added refined sugar have been removed. Brands are understandably frustrated - but the greater damage is in where this leaves our consumers, who are now in a state of complete confusion, with dangerous information as their trusted guide.

We’ve seen the impact of this too simple approach to sugar in the healthy snacking category. Fruit snacks should be made from fruit & veg, but as brands have increasingly sought to cut costs they have used fruit juice concentrates (no more than fruit flavoured syrups) and gumming agents to devalue what should be a healthy snacking category - and the new sugar smart app can’t tell the difference. The sugar levels look the same, but nutritional benefit derived from the product is miles apart - a product made from actual food that comes with fibre and vitamins rather than a highly processed extracted version no better than confectionery.

Our retailers are as frustrated as we are, and really pushing for this to change. The government needs to do its bit to support them in this fight so that we can get on with the business of genuinely driving change in the nation’s health. Not behind closed doors, but by giving consumers credit and taking the time to explain sugar properly.

Giles Brook is founding partner of Bear Nibbles