Spoon and sugar

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Total sugar sales are increasing, reports Action on Sugar

Supermarkets – the gatekeepers between manufacturers and consumers – hold considerable power over what we eat. Their stocking, pricing, and store layout choices strongly influence what shoppers buy.

It is not by chance that everyday staples like milk and bread are positioned far apart, or that eggs are impossible to find. Supermarkets want us to spend longer in store, so we buy more – and they are succeeding.

Supermarkets also hold significant power over suppliers, even the largest manufacturers like Nestlé and Unilever. The top 10 dominate over 95% of the market, with huge buying power.

Add to this the context that supermarkets operate primarily to generate profit for their shareholders, and what generates the most profit? Highly palatable, long shelf life, nutrient-poor products that are high in calories, sugar, salt and fat.

The more we buy, the more investment there is in these products and the more supermarkets are incentivised to sell them – a vicious ‘junk food cycle’, as coined by Henry Dimbleby. Rather than helping to reduce sugar consumption, supermarkets are driving sugar sales higher.

It’s no surprise therefore that sugar consumption is twice the recommended levels, contributing to diet-related ill health including obesity, Type 2 diabetes and tooth decay. Sugar production is also unsustainable: harvesting sugar beet strips 400,000 to 600,000 tonnes of topsoil from prime agricultural land annually, and processing is energy-intensive.

With total sugar sales increasing, Feedback Global and Action on Sugar surveyed the UK’s 10 biggest supermarkets to find out if their policies are fit for the task of reversing that trend. We found nine out of 10 have no policy to measure total sugar sales across all products (own-brand and branded) and no supermarkets are yet willing to publicly support a mandatory target.

In fact, supermarkets see themselves as responsible only for own-brand products – despite their stocking choices and marketing directly influencing branded product purchases.

Even as total sugar sales increase, supermarkets have been publicly celebrating sugar reduction in their own-brand products. Professing to be alleviating the diet-related health crisis while deflecting attention from how their stocking choices and sales tactics contribute to it is ‘leanwashing’ – and all supermarkets are doing it.

Supermarkets already employ experienced nutritionists who appreciate the seriousness of the situation. However, their evidence-based voice in favour of consumer health is frequently drowned out by commercial teams who prioritise sales targets and profit margins.

If supermarkets are serious about reducing sugar, nutritionists need a seat at the top table, and reducing sugar sales should be incorporated into their KPIs.

To ensure action is taken, the government must now use the Food Data Transparency Partnership to mandate total sugar sales reporting and use this to set a target to reduce sales by 50% by 2025 and two-thirds by 2030.