Should the UK sugar tax be extended to cakes and biscuits?

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

The bakery industry could be in for some belt-tightening on sugar content. Pic: GettyImages/Chris Ryan
The bakery industry could be in for some belt-tightening on sugar content. Pic: GettyImages/Chris Ryan

Related tags Action on Sugar Obesity soft drinks industry levy Scottish Bakers

Action on Sugar is calling on the incoming UK government to extend the sugar tax to cakes, biscuits and chocolates, citing the ‘proven success’ it’s had with the soft drinks category.

Sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) taxes have been implemented in more than 45 countries, including most of Europe, the UK and Northern Ireland, eight jurisdictions within the US, South Africa and some of Asia.

They were formalized in the UK in 2018, following the disappointingly small uptake of the voluntary reduction program in 2015.

According to researchers from Queen Mary University of London (QMUL), the mandatory SSB levy achieved a 34.3% reduction in total sugar sales between 2016 and 2020, while the voluntary program limped in with a 3.5% reduction.

It’s widely known that excessive sugar consumption plays havoc with weight gain, which in turn brings in the risk of a myriad of diseases, from type 2 diabetes to certain types of cancer. There’s also huge evidence of tooth decay. In fact, dental caries was the most frequently cited reason for the admission of UK children between the ages of 6-10 to hospital for tooth extractions between 2016 to 2020.

Obesity UK graph

The report’s authors firmly place the blame on the domination of ‘multinational corporations who exercise significant power over the options available to consumers’. They conjecture that collectively, 100 of the world’s largest food and drink manufacturers account for 77% of all packaged food sold, producing ‘cheap, highly processed, energy-dense and nutrient-poor food and drinks that are high in sugar’.

They add it’s also grounded in an accessible and thus excessive supply of sugar.

‘In the UK, for example, three times the amount of sugar recommended for consumption at a population level is supplied to the market, facilitated by the liberalization of the European sugar market in the mid-2000s and a strong domestic industry,’ they write.

The World Health Organization (WHO) places a cap on 5% of energy intake amongst adults, but across Europe this is still as high as 6.9% (Portugal) to as much as 18.1% (Austria). Worse still is the intake by 4-18 year-olds, with averages of over 12%.

Crackdown on the sugar content threshold

Pile of sugar stocksnapper
Pic: GettyImages/stocksnapper

So, despite the SBBS successes, Action on Sugar is advocating to further increase the levy and reduce the sugar content threshold in the soft drinks industry levy.

It’s also advocating for the same to be implemented in the bakery sector.

Given the success that SSB taxes have had in alleviating the UK’s ever expanding waistline – and spiralling health costs – the consumer watchdog is now banking on the sweeping promises of change by the two major parties to nab power in the upcoming UK elections to expand coverage of the levy to ‘treat foods’, such as cakes, biscuits and chocolate.

“The new government needs to control the food industry rather than being subservient to its profits,” Prof Graham MacGregor, a professor of cardiovascular health at QMUL and chair of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, told Bakery&Snacks.

“This requires reducing the huge and unnecessary amounts of salt, sugar and fat in these foods by setting targets for each food group that are legally enforceable. Otherwise, many hundreds of thousands of people will die unnecessarily from strokes, heart attacks and cancer.”

The three sectors – along with the breakfast cereals, morning goods, puddings and four other categories – had already been targeted to achieve a 20% reduction in sugar by 20%. Analysis had suggested that if targets were met, average sugar consumption would fall by 1,000g-3,600g per person per year, with the knock-on effect of saving the National Health Service (NHS) up to $4.1bn, while growing the country’s economic output by £5.7bn.

But, being far more complex than the implementation of SSB taxes, the initiative didn’t resonate and results were flaccid.

Between 2015 and 2020, the initiative achieved a 3.5% reduction in sales-weighted average sugar levels in retailer (6.3%) and manufacturer (1%) branded products, with breakfast cereals coming in with the biggest reductions (14.9%).

Conversely, there was a 7.1% increase in total sugar sales from foods overall.

With a blanket 20% target reduction in sugar across all categories, not all brand owners opted to develop products with 30% less sugar or apply this claim to packaging. In fact, many were unwilling to reformulate their main full-sugar products in fear the 30%-less-sugar variants would decrease their market standing, according to the study’s authors.

Mandatory vs voluntary sugar targets

Eating sugar for breakfast cereal Clarkand Company
Pic: GettyImages/Clarkland Company

Which ultimately means that all sugar reduction targets must be mandatory as ‘industry will only prioritize voluntary targets if aligned with commercial interests,’ say the authors.

Alluding to Hungary’s ‘successful’ public health product tax – which applies to all pre-packaged products with added sugar and was recently strengthened to include a new double-rate tax for particularly sweet products’, Action on Sugar is calling on the new UK government to consider a similar levy to other discretionary products that are key contributors to sugar intake.’

Added Dr Kawther Hashem, lecturer of Public Health Nutrition at QMU, “As the general election gears pace, our timely new research, published in the WHO Bulletin, documents key policy actions for the next government to undertake to improve their work on sugar reduction. Procrastinating any further should not be an option.

“We mustn’t forget that unhealthy diets are the biggest cause of death and disability globally and costs the UK more than £100 billion annually.

“Whilst the UK government has implemented several policies aimed at reducing sugar intake – including the soft drinks industry levy and the sugar reduction program – this latest analysis shows additional improvements can still be made to both policies to enhance their wider impact.

“This includes increasing the levy, reducing the sugar content threshold in the soft drinks industry levy and setting more stringent subcategory specific targets in the sugar reduction program.

“Policymakers are also urged to consider applying a similar levy to other discretionary products that are key contributors to sugar intake, such as chocolate confectionary, to shift diets towards a healthier direction.”

Industry reaction

Woman eating doghnut Getty rachasuk
Pic: GettyImages/rachasuk

Lesley Cameron, CEO of Scottish Bakers, is rightfully cautious.

She told Bakery&Snacks the association – which has been the voice of the Scottish bakery community for the past 133 years – welcomes the moves by both administrations to tackle obesity, but before major policy decisions are implemented, they need agreement across the board.

“We recognise both the Scottish and UK Governments efforts to improve public health through dietary regulation,” said Cameron.

“If the sugar tax is extended into the bakery sector, it would be our ambition to feed into an official consultation process. The sector needs to understand the full impact of the tax on public health outcomes, consumer spending and the ongoing economic viability of the bakery sector.”

As the majority of its members' products are non-HFSS (the UK government's high in fat, sugar and salt regulations), the Federation of Bakers declined to comment.

To reformulate or not?

Reformulation isn't a nightmare - if you have the right resources and tools at hand. Bakery&Snacks has covered this topic extensively, tapping experts such as FDF Scotland,​ TraceGains​ and even debated the topic in an industry-led webinar that is free-to-download.

Related news

Show more

Related products

show more

Can your red beet ENDURE the heat?

Can your red beet ENDURE the heat?

Content provided by Givaudan | 22-May-2024 | Product Brochure

Endure Beetroot is patent pending vegan, kosher, and simple label red option with improved heat stability in cakes and other bakery applications that can...

Increasingly, sustainability is linked to value

Increasingly, sustainability is linked to value

Content provided by Corbion | 08-May-2024 | Insight Guide

Today, it’s not enough for products to be good for you. Consumers — especially Millennials and Gen Z-ers — not only want bakery products that are good...

Related suppliers

Follow us


View more