Challenging the supply chain to reduce sugar in foods


WHO has published a new study that investigates why manufacturers and other supply chain actors use sugar in foods and why they use it in such large amounts. The publication “Incentives and disincentives for reducing sugar in manufactured foods: an exploratory supply chain analysis” concludes that a comprehensive approach encompassing the entire food system is necessary in order to reduce sugar intake.

WHO produced the report in response to the growing issue of consumption of excess free sugars throughout the WHO European Region. Consuming excess free sugars is associated with weight gain for adults and children.

More incentives than disincentives to produce food high in sugar

The major sources of free sugars in the European diet include sugary drinks and so-called treat foods such as sweets, chocolates, cakes, pastries and biscuits. The term “free sugars” refers to all monosaccharides and disaccharides added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus the sugars that are naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. It does not include sugars present in whole fruits or vegetables.

According to WHO recommendations, intake of free sugars should be less than 10% of total daily energy intake for both adults and children, and ideally should be less than 5%.

The new report, prepared together with the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London (United Kingdom), reveals that producers and retailers of food with high sugar content currently have many more incentives to continue using sugar than to limit its use or substitute it completely.

These incentives include:

  • the perception that sugar is the gold standard for sweetness;
  • sugar’s availability as a relatively cheap and abundant ingredient from multiple sources;
  • manufacturers’ and retailers’ focus on maintaining competitiveness;
  • manufacturers’ and retailers’ desire to maintain “choice” for consumers who still want to buy sugary foods;
  • sugar’s provision of essential functional qualities for manufactured foods; and
  • consumer concern about the use of artificial sweeteners.

Currently, there are relatively few incentives for producers to reduce sugar in manufactured food. These include:

  • growing consumer awareness of the health effects of sugar;
  • government policies and actions to reduce consumer demand for sugar; and
  • availability of a greater range of non-caloric sweeteners.

Using policy tools to shift the incentives–disincentives balance

Building on this, the report explores a wide range of policy tools that governments can use to create healthier food environments by shifting the incentive structure for manufacturers and retailers towards reducing sugar in foods, and by helping people to develop healthy dietary preferences. The tools are consistent with the policy options set out in the WHO European Food and Nutrition Action Plan 2015–2020.

In particular, the report considers the following approaches to improving the nutritional quality of diets:

  • restrictions on the marketing of foods to children;
  • consumer-friendly labelling;
  • pricing policies;
  • school food standards; and
  • ambitious strategies to reformulate the composition of food.

“It is evident that, from a health perspective, decisive action is needed to bring down the levels of sugar in manufactured foods in Europe,” says Dr João Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases and Programme Manager for Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity at WHO/Europe.

“We already have encouraging examples of several countries in Europe that have demonstrated it is possible to challenge manufacturers to lower sugar content in foods through specific, time-bound targets for sugar reduction and interpretative front-of-pack labelling. Others have used legislation such as taxation on sugary beverages or limiting marketing to children of sugar-rich products.”

New analysis to help prompt further discussion and action

The new WHO publication will contribute to the ongoing implementation of the WHO guidelines on free sugar intake. It also provides a strong case for further research and policy discussions on the most effective ways to transform modern food systems for health.

WHO presented the analysis to Member States for consultation at the joint Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)/WHO International Symposium on Sustainable Food Systems for Healthy Diets and Improved Nutrition, held in Budapest, Hungary, on 4–5 December 2017. WHO actively welcomes feedback from countries on the insights offered by the analysis.