Policy Position

The role of sugars in the diet has been in the media spotlight over the past few years. This gathered momentum back when the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published their Carbohydrates and Health report in 2015. Their review of the evidence found higher sugars intake was associated with higher energy intakes and dental caries. The report made a series of recommendations, one of which was to reduce free sugars intakes across the population.

See FDF’s response to the SACN consultation.

A year later, the UK government published their Childhood Obesity Plan which included a sugars reduction programme aimed at industry, led by Public Health England (PHE).

FDF members are committed to working alongside PHE and other stakeholders to respond to this challenge and play their part through reformulation where possible. There are, however, many challenges as sugars play numerous roles beyond adding sweetness, including:

  • affecting the texture (for example crunchiness)
  • melting characteristic or ‘mouth feel’
  • providing bulk
  • adding colour to a final product
  • increasing shelf-life.

Where technical challenges or consumer acceptance limits the reformulation work, industry are looking at other mechanisms such as creating smaller portion sizes and encouraging consumers to switch to lower-sugars alternatives.

Reformulation is not new to FDF members; they take their responsibility to help consumers achieve healthier lifestyles very seriously. Compared to 4 years ago, FDF member products provide 11% less sugars into the average shopping basket and the soft drink sector has achieved a 31% reduction in sugars since 2015.

Sugars are only one of the nutrients that can contribute to excess calorie intake. FDF are currently working with PHE to build on this work and create a holistic reformulation programme with calorie reduction at its heart.

See the FDF briefing on the science behind sugars.


Sugars intakes in the UK

Daily free sugars intakes are decreasing in the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS), but are still more than double, and almost three times for teenagers, the recommended 5% of energy intake. Household purchases of non-milk extrinsic sugars (NMES) have also decreased, falling 7.3% between 2012 and 2015.

PHE's sugars reduction programme

The PHE sugars reduction programme was first announced in the 2016 Childhood Obesity Plan. Every sector of the food industry – retailers, manufacturers, and out of home – are challenged to contribute to the programme and achieve the government’s target reductions of 20% by 2020, with 5% in the first year, in nine key categories of food.

PHE undertook a comprehensive engagement process from May 2016 to March 2017 to support the development of the programme, consisting of a series of individual and category specific meetings, along with an opportunity for written feedback. See FDF’s response here.

In March 2017 PHE published the report Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20% which contains the baseline data and 5 and 20% guidelines across the nine food categories included in the programme. Most categories were also given an average and maximum calorie or portion size guideline for single serve products.

In September 2017, PHE published an interim report, providing an overview of activity undertaken between April and September 2017. In May 2018, a comprehensive monitoring report was published by PHE, assessing progress for the first year. On average, industry achieved a 2% reduction in total sugar across the categories. The 5% sugar reduction target was achieved in three categories; breakfast cereals, sweet spreads and sauces, yoghurts and fromage frais.

In May 2018, PHE published guidelines for the drinks outside of the soft drinks industry levy; 'Sugar reduction; juice and milk based drinks'.

An energy reduction programme is also being launched by PHE, who published a report outlining the scope for the programme in March 2018. This report challenges the food industry to achieve a 20% reduction in calories by 2024. Stakeholder engagement is due to take place from Autumn 2018 onwards, with guidelines published mid-2019.

For more information, see our policy position on reformulation.

Soft drinks industry levy

In the 2016 Budget a soft drinks industry levy was announced with the details confirmed in the 2017 Budget. The levy targets producers and importers of the drinks, aiming to encourage reformulation, with pure fruit juices containing no added sugars along with milk-based drinks excluded.

The levy rates differ depending on the amount of sugars in the drinks, with implementation of the levy on the 6th of April 2018.

Also of interest may be FDF’s response to the NHS standard contract 2017/2018 consultation which looked at the introduction of an additional tax on drinks within NHS trusts / NHS Foundation Trusts. This was later changed to a restriction of sales on sugary drinks.

See the FDF policy position for additional details of the levy and NHS restrictions.

SACN Carbohydrate and Health report

In July 2015 SACN published the final report on carbohydrates (including sugars) and health.

The report included the following recommendations regarding sugars:

  1. Population average intake of free sugars should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy for ages 2 years upwards.
  2. Intakes of sugars-sweetened beverages should be minimised in children and adults.
  3. The definition of ‘free sugars’ to be adopted in the UK.
  4. Energy lost from a reduction in free sugars to be replaced with starches and sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods and in milk and milk products (this should only occur if a person is in energy balance and has a BMI within the normal range).
  5. The dietary reference values (DRV) for total carbohydrate remain unchanged at 50% of dietary energy.

Free sugars comprise all mono and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices.

Naturally present lactose and sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods would be excluded.

All UK government administrations adopted the recommendations in full and the 5% figure became the new dietary recommendation for sugars.

WHO sugars recommendation

In 2015 the World Health Organisation (WHO) published their final guidance on sugars intake. They recommended adults and children reduce their daily intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake, with a conditional recommendation, due to low quality evidence, to reduce free sugars to below 5% of total energy intake for additional health benefits.

The conditional 5% recommendation made by WHO is the same figure SACN recommended, however, WHO based their recommendation on evidence for prevention of dental caries whereas SACN’s evidence was from the potential impact of sugars intake on total energy intakes.


Sweetness is a taste that, in the diet, comes from sugars (both naturally present in foods and added) and other sweet-tasting sugars substitutes such as low-calorie sweeteners. Humans are born with a natural preference for sweetness which decreases over time.

Research on sweetness is extremely limited with most research conducted on sugars and/or low- calorie sweeteners. As a result, there is limited evidence in the field of sweetness to reach conclusions about the effects of reducing it in the diet. For a summary of the evidence available on sweetness.


Research into sweeteners shows they are perfectly safe to eat or drink on a daily basis as part of a healthy diet.

  • All sweeteners in the EU undergo a rigorous safety assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) before they can be used in food and drink.
  • SACN Carbohydrates and Health report concluded replacing foods and drinks sweetened with sugar, with those containing no or low calorie sweeteners, could be useful in helping people to manage their weight.
  • Cancer Research UK and the US National Cancer Institute have said sweeteners do not cause cancer.
  • EFSA has approved health claims about some sweeteners and their beneficial effect on oral health and controlling blood sugars levels.

PHE in their recent report Sugar Reduction: Achieving the 20% endorse sweeteners, stating sweeteners are a ‘safe and acceptable alternative to using sugars and it is up to the businesses if and how they wish to use them’.

For more information about individual sweeteners, see the NHS choices webpage.

Labelling of sugars

Companies are required to provide nutrition labelling on products, including values for both carbohydrates and total sugars. It is, however, illegal to display a value for free or added sugars.

Many companies voluntarily provide simplified information on the front of pack and the different sources of sugars within a product are listed individually in the ingredients list. For more information on labelling.

Sugars and addictiveness

Recent scientific reviews have shown that there is currently no evidence that supports the theory that sugars, or other nutrients or foods, are addictive. See our policy on food addiction for more information.

Last reviewed: 21 May 2020