Sugar reduction: a consumer perspective

Date : 27 October 2020

Hannah Skeggs

Nutrition & Scientific Affairs Manager

In October 2020, Public Health England (PHE) published its progress report on the sugar reduction programme from 2015 to 2019. The targets rely both on the work of the food industry, and on consumer behaviour change. So what has been achieved and does it align with latest shopper attitudes to sugar?


Publication of the latest progress report on PHE’s Sugar reduction strategy saw many critical headlines.

‘Only 3% sugar cut out from food products in three years, PHE finds’

It was reported that sugar had been reduced through reformulation by only around 3% compared to a target of 20%. In contrast the soft drinks industry levy has achieved a sugar reduction in soft drinks of 44% since 2015, suggesting that the government may now consider further taxation or fiscal measures1.

However, we are not comparing like for like between these two programmes. The soft drinks industry levy relies on meeting three pre-defined sugar levels per 100ml and applying financial taxes accordingly. As a result, the average sugar level per 100mls of soft drink has declined.

In the sugar reduction strategy, food categories are challenged to reduce the sales weighted average of sugar sold by 20% by 2020. This means that not only does a product need to be reformulated (technically more challenging with food than soft drinks) but it needs to appeal to consumers and most importantly sell.

This presents a real challenge for industry. An example is confectionary. Sales of chocolates and sweets have increased over the past 5 years, so the total amount of sugar being bought in those two confectionery groups has risen by 16% and 7% respectively1. This is despite the launch of high-profile marketing campaigns and products such as the 30% reduced sugar Dairy Milk, Milky Bar Wowsomes and reduced sugar Fruit Pastels.

Where this gets more challenging is that our shopper research demonstrates that most shoppers do not welcome recipe changes in the categories included in the reformulation programme2.

50% of shoppers told us that would not want to change the way they consume confectionary to reduce the amount of sugar in their diet. Only 3% would consider a sugar reduced item with 15% instead saying they would rather the portion size was reduced and 23% would prefer to eat this less frequently rather than change the product2.

What are you doing to reduce sugar in your diet?

In addition, only 48% of males and 57% of females would be happy for biscuits, chocolates and sweets to be reformulated, even if they were just as tasty. This shows how precious and emotive our treat categories can be2.

This shopper preference varies hugely by category and shows consumers are most likely to consider no or low sugar varieties of soft drinks, breakfast cereals and yogurts. This is not surprising when we overlay PHE’s data and see that the sugar content in breakfast cereals, yoghurts and fromage frais has come down by about 13% since 2015 – a real success story for the programme1.

PHE’s overarching data shows little difference in sugar consumption over 5 years1, but have consumer attitudes changed?

Half of shoppers claim they want to reduce their sugar consumption, but this is declining.

For many years, sugar was a nutrient of focus, demonised in the press and a focus for industry. But our shopper research shows that consumers health priorities are becoming broader and they’re now rapidly evolving as a result of Covid-19.

Reducing sugar remains a top three priority for shoppers looking to improve their diet with half of all shoppers still claiming to be actively reducing their sugar intake, though it seems to be less of a focus2. Shoppers are considering a wider range of factors to optimise their health. This may not seem surprising in the current climate, but it’s actually a longer term trend with the decline going back over two years.

More shoppers are looking at the sugar content of foods on Front of Pack Nutrition labels.

More shoppers now obtain information about sugar content in supermarkets or on product packaging, compared to April 2019 (59% 2020 vs. 53% 2019). This suggests that shoppers are making themselves more aware of the sugar content of foods, despite not actively looking to reduce consumption. This should help shoppers to make informed choices, but education alone is often insufficient to drive behaviour change.

In the last year a steep decline has been seen in families trying to reduce the amount of sugar consumed at meal occasions. 53% of families were focusing on this in 2019 compared to 45% in 2020.

However ‘no’ and ‘low’ sugar claims are the top priority when buying packaged food and drinks for children. Whilst high across all ages this is particularly prominent in those with children aged 5-10 (64%)2.

If not sugar, what?

There is confusion and uncertainty around sugar alternatives, particularly ‘artificial sweeteners.’ Almost half (47%) of shoppers claim that artificial sweeteners are just as bad/worse for you than sugar. This increases to 53% for shoppers with children2.

In IGD focus groups, artificial sweeteners were identified as a cause of confusion. Shoppers generally thought that they were a good alternative to sugar, however some worried about them being unnatural and many were unaware of the rigorous safety testing that sweeteners must undergo. This perception could be impacting on sales of sugar reduced or reformulated products, and therefore needs addressing if consumers want the same taste and less sugar.

In summary;

  • There is more to be done by industry, the government, and consumers to reduce sugar consumption.
  • Companies should consider portion size reduction as an approach for reducing sugar for specific categories.
  • Over half of shoppers tell us they want to or are reducing sugar, but when we ask them about specific products or categories willingness to change declines, often opting to stick with the status Quo.
  • Nutrition labels and on pack claims can help shoppers to make informed choices, but they alone will not cause significant behaviour change.


  1. Public Health England, 2020. Sugar reduction: report on progress between 2015 and 2019. Available here:
  2. IGD Shopper Vista, 2020. Where do shoppers stand with sugar in 2020? Base 1,007 British shoppers, May 2020. Available here: