Action on Sugar and Action on Salt are calling on the government to introduce a calorie levy on all calorie-dense processed foods that meet agreed criteria.

Similar to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, known as the Sugar Tax, the calorie levy would force manufacturers of products such as cakes and biscuits to pay a levy to the government if they failed to reduce excessive calories, the lobbies said.

They added that the levy would encourage product reformulation to reduce both fat and sugar in unhealthy products.

Despite Public Health England’s Sugar Reduction Programme, referencing that “sugar reduction should be achieved without increasing the level of saturated fat within a product and, where possible, be accompanied by calorie reduction”, both Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said it did not go far enough to reduce calories. They called on government body the Department for Health and Social Care to actively encourage companies to reduce fat as well as sugar.

Notably, food and drink suppliers fell short of government targets to reduce sugar in 2018. On average, retailers and manufacturers cut sugar in their products by 2% per 100g – well below the 5% target set by PHE for their first year of sugar reduction versus a baseline set in 2015.

According to Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s 2019 review of the totality of evidence, reducing calories from saturated fat could reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and coronary heart disease, as well as lowering cholesterol.

“Action on Sugar’s strategy to prevent obesity and Type 2 diabetes calls on all food manufacturers to also reduce fat, especially saturated fat, in addition to sugar,” said registered nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem, campaign lead at Action on Sugar, based at Queen Mary University of London.

“It is important that the government makes this clear to manufacturers. It does not make sense to have cakes and biscuits and many other sweet solid food categories only as part of the Sugar Reduction Programme. They must be part of the Calorie Reduction Programme, because sugar reduction alone is not enough to tackle childhood obesity.”

‘Reformulation of cakes and biscuits should be easily achievable’

A recent study published in nutrition journal Nutrients by researchers at Queen Mary University London, showed that when compared to sugar reformulation alone, fat and sugar reformulation could result in a much larger reduction in excess calories to reduce obesity.

In the study, which analysed more than 850 cakes and biscuits, the researchers found that fat contributes significantly more to the calorie content of cakes and biscuits than sugar i.e. the more fat they contain, the more calories they contain, regardless of their sugar content.

For example:

  • Fat in chocolate cakes varied two-fold, from 12.2g to 27.5g per 100g
  • Fat in Victoria sponges varied three-fold, from 8.5g to 24.7g per 100g
  • Saturated fat in Rich Tea biscuits varied six-fold, from 1.2g to 7.2g per 100g

The lobbies concluded that such figures indicated that reformulation would be easily achievable.

Roberta Alessandrini, lead author and researcher at Queen Mary University of London, suggested that calorie reduction in these items could be achieved through the addition of fruit, vegetables and whole grains that contain dietary fibre, which has demonstrated positive health effects.

“Manufacturers are simply not doing enough. If the government is really committed to helping the less well off, they need to tackle the food industry and a feasibility study needs to be undertaken without delay,” added Katharine Jenner, campaign director of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt.

“An ‘excess calorie levy’ would encourage manufacturers to improve the nutritional quality of their unhealthy foods and, most importantly, tackle the thousands who suffer the consequences of a poor diet, leading to obesity, Type 2 diabetes and cancer.”