Pressure on bakery manufacturers and retailers to reduce the sugar content of their goods has been renewed after the food and drink industry fell short of government targets.

Public Health England (PHE) revealed last week that, on average, the sugar content per 100g in a selected range of products has been reduced by 2% – well below the 5% target set for the first year of action against a baseline of 2015. Biscuits, puddings, breakfast cereals and morning goods were among the eight categories targeted.

At the recent Federation of Bakers’ conference, Waitrose nutrition & health manager Moira Howie revealed the steps the retailer takes when reducing sugar in its products, including bakery items.

This work, she noted, had brought a 5.9% reduction of sugar in six hot cross bun lines, equating to the removal of 34 tonnes of sugar a year.

But it’s not easy, particularly given the role sugar plays as a preservative, and in making the product more visually appealing through browning and glazing, as well as in mouthfeel and taste.

“When we kick-start work, we have what we call ‘non-negotiables’. We don’t want a drop in quality, we don’t want any drop in taste and we certainly don’t want any textural changes,” Howie said. “It’s important to engage with our suppliers very early in the process.”

The own-label lines are then selected and suppliers asked to look at appropriate ways to reduce the sugar content across them, while remaining aware of the role of sugar in that line.

“That then helps us as, a business, to know how far we can reduce the sugar and how much sugar we can take out of the end-product,” she explained.

It’s important to look at all aspects of a product, Howie noted. “We break products down into their constituent parts – some areas will offer opportunities for sugar reduction and others won’t.”

The key areas of the products Waitrose looks at are:

  • Toppings and glazes: Is it possible to reduce sugar from the products without reducing product appeal and taste? This could include using less sugar for dusting on top.
  • Base: Is it possible to reduce sugar from the base, while still maintaining mouthfeel, taste and texture? Bases are complex, and Howie noted minor changes can cause things to act different to usual.
  • Fruit preparation: Can you reduce the sugar content of fruit puree and/or jams, if used, while still maintaining the viscosity?
  • Inclusions: If using inclusions such as chocolate and fruit, can their sugar content be reduced? On fruit, there are seasonal variations in the sweetness, while for chocolate reductions could be made by looking at the quality and quantity of cocoa used.
  • Overall impact: What impact would all these changes have on customer satisfaction, on factory processes, shelf life and packaging?

“It’s important that any changes we make to products in the kitchen can be scaled up to the final factory production,” she said. “That, of course, is not a linear equation. Lots of things can go wrong between that small scale, so what you can do in the kitchen, and the factory.

“This leads to several trials, tests and repeated tests, so at the end we can get a product we like.”