Supermarkets today launched a major defence of their record on public health, releasing a new report showing they have removed “thousands of tonnes of sugar” from products in the past year alone.

With the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) review, due Friday (17 July), expected to call for the nation’s sugar intake to be halved, the BRC released previously unseen figures showing the impact of moves made by supermarkets under the Responsibility Deal (RD), a voluntary agreement which many believe will be scrapped by the new government.

The figures, which the Department of Health (DH) had kept under wraps despite having been submitted by companies as annual updates before the General Election, show that retailers have removed thousands of tonnes of sugar and hundreds of billions of calories from the soft drinks sector alone.

It shows the moves made by all the BRC’s supermarket members to reduce sugar (see first boxout) but also the moves to remove billions of calories from fat and saturated fat from products such as ready meals (see second boxout), as well as listing other measures brought in by supermarkets to encourage healthy eating (see boxout three).

Supermarket war on sugar

  • Aldi - Over 70 per cent of their own-label soft drinks range “no added sugar”
  • Asda - In 2014 removed 229 tonnes of sugar across breakfast cereals, yoghurt drinks and soft drinks and 2015 announced commitment to reduce the amount of added sugar across a range of own-label soft drinks by 22%, removing 3.25 billion calories and 814.2 tonnes of sugar. (Achieved in full by May 2015.)
  • Boots - All Shapers drinks sugar free or low in sugar
  • The Co-operative - First retailer to offer ‘no added sugar’ in all dilutable drinks. More than 90% of Co-operative own brand ambient soft drinks (squash, fruit juice, carbonated drinks & water) either sugar free, have no added Sugar or low in sugar. Removed 1.5bn calories and 1m teaspoons of sugar from the market.
  • M&S - Reviewing the sugar content of products that are perceived as healthy and have removed 59 tonnes of added sugar across our yogurts. Reformulating to reduce sugar across carbonates and dilutes, already removing 12 tonnes of added sugar.
  • Morrisons - Removed 122 tonnes of sugar from high juice squashes and 72 tonnes from energy drinks. In total removed 950 m calories from customers’ baskets over the year with 80% of their soft drinks are now no added sugar.
  • Sainsbury’s - Reformulated soft drinks with focus on lemonade and cola, resulting in 1,309 tonnes of sugar removed, or 5.2m calories per year. Additional 946 tonnes of sugar from high juices squashes. (3.7bn calories.
  • Tesco - In past year removed 1.5 billion calories from soft drinks; a total of 4.6 billion calories removed from soft drinks and juices since 2012. Committed to reduce added sugars by 5% per year in all their own-label soft drinks, resulting in removal of 477 billion calories from the UK diet.
  • Waitrose - Sugar reductions of between 5-15% in undiluted juices, cordials and squashes and 10-30% sugar reduction in soft drinks.

Source: Data submitted by retailers under the PHRD April 2015

The BRC called on the government not to abandon the current approach to obesity, which has focused not just on sugar but also overall calorie intake, and stressed the importance of physical activity in solving the UK’s heath crisis.

“Retailers have removed thousands of tonnes of sugar and hundreds of billions of calories from food products, making it easier for people to cut their own sugar intake and, in the case of parents, that of their children also,” says the report.

But it adds: “It is widely acknowledged by Government and health experts that obesity is a complex, multifactorial problem for which there is no one simple solution.

“Causes include unbalanced diets, a lack of exercise and in some cases, underlying medical conditions.

“Food retailers acting alone therefore, cannot resolve the obesity problem; all stakeholders (including retail) have a role to play working in partnership and this is what is happening.”

The BRC also launched a defence of supermarkets’ record on the issue of so-called “guilt lanes”.

“Stores do not seek to push so called ‘unhealthy foods’ such as sweets and crisps in preference to healthy foods,” says the report. “The first thing you see when you walk into most supermarkets is large displays of fresh fruit and vegetables, often heavily price-promoted and discounted to encourage purchase and consumption.

“Tackling obesity will require a range of measures from different stakeholders and there is at times unfortunately too much focus on sweets at checkouts. “

The report also stresses the importance of choice and personal responsibility in the health debate.

Other reformulation measures by supermarkets

  • Aldi - Introduced lower saturated fat options including frozen steam ready meals and a lower fat dairy products.
  • Asda - in 2014 reformulation programme resulted in removal of 72 tonnes of sat fat across products including trifle, fresh sauces, savoury pastries and processed potato products.
  • Morrisons - Reduced saturated fat from Italian ready meals by 4-74% through use of lower sat fat ingredients and improved processes, resulting in removal of 21,776 tonnes of sat fat from customers’ baskets.
  • Sainsbury’s - Moved from 35% fat cream to 31% fat cream in chilled cream cakes, delivering annual saturated fat reduction of 102 tonnes and total fat reduction of 165 tonnes per year. Moved to 31% fat in chilled trifles expected to deliver a fat reduction of 29 tonnes per year. Entire range of By Sainsbury’s pates have been reformulated saving 47 tonnes of fat and 14 tonnes of saturated fat per year.
  • Tesco - Reduced saturated fat from their trifles by 37,260kg, from cream cakes by 125,930kg and from dips by 9,724kg.
  • Waitrose - Achieved numerous sat reductions: 18% in chilled quiches and tarts, 10% in pre-packed sushi, 34.5% in chilled meat sauces, 17.3% in puddings and desserts, 14.8% in crumbles, 3.3% in ‘Good to Go’ salads, 20% in hot cross buns and 11% in celebration cakes.

Source: Data submitted by retailers under the PHRD April 2015

“It is not the place of either Government or industry to tell people what they can and cannot eat,” it says. “The final decision on diets should lie with the individual or, in the case of children, with parents.

“What is important is ensuring that consumers have plenty of healthy options to choose from as well as clear and understandable nutritional information. Retailers have led the way in both respects.”

A BRC spokesman said: “When you put together the achievements that retailers have made it his hugely impressive. I have no idea why the government has not published it.”

One industry leader told The Grocer the coalition had “failed dismally” to adequately flag up the efforts made by retailers on areas such as reformulation, leaving the RD and its signatories too often open to criticism from the health lobby.

“The fact that these figures on what has been achieved have just been sitting there on a computer at DH headquarters says it all,” said one industry leader.

However, The BRC has also made it clear that its members will not sign up to any new voluntary measures unless they are backed up by a formal evidence base and a system with clear measurements of success, after widespread criticism of the vague and time consuming reporting methods of the RD were blamed for its demise.

Meanwhile the Food and Drink Federation also launched a strong defence of moves by suppliers to make products more healthy, with a new report flagging up some of the work carried out by companies including the likes of Nestlé, PepsiCo and Coca Cola.

“”We know there is no silver bullet when it comes to tackling obesity, but the industry must be part of the solution,” said FDF president Fiona Kendrick Chairman and CEO of Nestlé UK.

“Food and drink companies have voluntarily reformulated iconic products and made portion sizes smaller.”

The report cites Coca Cola for increasing marketing around it no sugar cola drinks by more than 50% in the past two years, a move across the confectionery sector to cap single serving of products at 250 calories, as well as a raft of members signing up to the UK’s voluntary traffic light labelling system.

“”FDF and its members have a commitment to help consumers achieve a balanced diet within a healthy lifestyle informed by robust, up to date science,” FDF director general Ian Wright said in the report.

Other supermarkets’ moves on health

  • Aldi - Run fortnightly ‘Super 6’ fruit and vegetable offer since 2006. Also introduced a significant number of new fruit and vegetable lines such as dedicated organic range, expansion of their Every Day essential and Specially Selected ranges as well as prepared fruit and vegetable assortment.
  • Boots - Launched ‘Nutritious’ range providing at least one 5 A-DAY and only amber and green traffic lights.
  • The Co-operative - Encouraging increased consumption of fruit and veg through targeted incentives such as money-off coupons.
  • Morrisons - In summer 2014 offered customers opportunity to get £5 of fruit and vegetable for free with voucher with more than a million customers taking ti up.
  • Tesco - increased the fruit and veg content of their products and introduced 5 a day logo across entire range of products.

Source: Data submitted by retailers under the PHRD April 2015