Bakers have been told by the government to cut the amount of sugar in their products by 20% over the next four years.

The government is calling on the food and drink industry to reduce overall sugar from products it says contribute to children’s sugar intake by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in the first year. It adds this can be through “reduction of sugar levels in products, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives”.

Industry trade body the Food & Drink Federation (FDF) said the plans focus too strongly on the role of a single nutrient, and that the reduction target may be impractical for some food categories.

FDF director general Ian Wright said: “Reformulation is difficult and costly: there are different challenges for each product; recipe change can only proceed at a pace dictated by consumers. We will do everything we can in the next six months to work towards a practicable reformulation solution while continuing to urge the government to adopt a ‘whole diet’ approach.”

The plan will focus initially on nine categories the government says make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intake: breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes, puddings and morning goods, as well as confectionery, yogurts, ice cream and sweet spreads.

Assessments will be made by Public Health England (PHE) in September 2018 and March 2020, and the government will use this information to determine whether sufficient progress is being made and whether “alternative levers” need to be used to reduce sugar and calories in food and drink consumed by children.

The document also details plans for the sugar tax on soft drinks. It states that there are no current plans to introduce similar levies or expand the levy to the confectionery category. But it said: “The government hopes this levy will encourage the entire food and drinks industry to play its part in developing products with lower sugar content.”

Gordon Polson, director of the Federation of Bakers, said: “While reformulation is not the only option in the plan, Federation of Bakers members have always taken their responsibilities seriously - look at our track record on salt reduction. But, like salt reduction, sugar reduction is challenging. The response cannot be the same across all products. It will depend on the particular product, its recipe and characteristics. We look forward to having further discussions with Public Health England before they publish targets by March 2017.”

A spokesperson for Premier Foods, said: “We are committed to working in partnership with government and others to tackle the problem of childhood obesity.

“We will be assessing the details of the plan and how it affects our business, but in the meantime we remain focused on delivering our own health commitments, which includes the removal of 1,000 tonnes of sugar across our cake, desserts and sauces brands by 2018.”

Finsbury Foods said: “As a provider of staple products from bread through to celebration cakes, we are very happy to engage in initiatives to promote education for the public – we believe education is the key in this discussion and a holistic approach is needed to solve issues around public health.”

Ben Eastick, marketing director of Ragus Sugars, told British Baker: “The people considering making these [sugar tax] legislations need to have a very considered approach to it and ask themselves about the ramifications.”