In July 2015, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) in the UK recommended that average free sugars (sugar) intake, across the UK population, should not exceed 5% of total energy intake [1
]. SACN’s advice was based on the need to reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and dental caries risk [2
In 2014, average intakes of sugar exceeded recommendations in all age groups [11
]. The mean sugar intake in adults was 60 g per day, equivalent to 12% of daily energy intake. In children, the average sugar intake was 54 g (13%) per day in 4–10 year olds and 73 g (15%) per day in 11–18 year olds [11
In order to reduce sugar intake (and therefore obesity and tooth decay) and help consumers to follow the principles of the Eatwell guide, the UK government published Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action (2016), in which a reformulation programme for sugar was included. The programme, led by Public Health England, asked manufacturers to reduce sugar by 20% by 2020 in each of the nine food and drink categories that contribute the most sugar in children’s diets, such as breakfast cereals, yoghurts, cakes, biscuits, morning goods, puddings, sweet spreads, sweet confectionery, ice cream and chocolate confectionery.
As part of the sugar reduction programme, companies can choose to achieve the 20% reduction by reformulating their products (without increasing overall calories), reducing portion size or promoting their lower sugar products [12
]. Sales weighted averages (SWA) were calculated by weighing the sugar level of individual products against their volume sales; a high-selling product with high sugar levels drives the SWA upwards, whereas a high selling product with a low sugar level drives it downwards. SWA for chocolate confectionery is currently 54.6 g of sugar per 100 g, with the aim of bringing it down to 43.7 g by 2020 [12
]. The SWA allows for flexibility in the sugar levels in different products within a category, e.g., a chocolate manufacturer can continue to sell a high sugar chocolate product if the remainder of their portfolio is lower. However, if the high sugar product is a big seller, the amount of sugar will have to be reduced through reformulation or reduced price promotions to reduce sales [12
]. The calorie SWA was 200 kcal per 100 g and the cap for a single serve of chocolate was set at a maximum of 250 kcal [12
This research aims to (a) compare sugar content in chocolate confectionery between 1992 and 2017, (b) evaluate the sugar and energy content of chocolate confectionery sold in the UK, (c) report the variability in sugar and energy content in 2017, (d) assess the sugar content in relation to the UK’s new daily recommendation for sugar intake and by chocolate manufacturers in the UK in 1992 and 2017 and (e) compare current serving sizes to the maximum calorie cap of 250 kcal suggested in the sugar reduction programme.
This study showed that the level of sugar in chocolate confectionery has increased since 1992, which is concerning from a public health nutrition perspective. Some may argue that the increase in sugar content was driven by consumer demand, but, as will be discussed later, marketing, advertisement and promotion of products also encourage demand for such products. Nonetheless, since products were lower in sugar in 1992, this may suggest that sugar can be reduced in chocolate confectionery. Without energy content data from 1992, it is difficult to be certain that these products were lower in energy as well as sugar compared to recent data.
Nevertheless, the large variations in sugar and energy content within the same category of chocolate in 2017 suggests that reformulation is possible. For instance, some manufacturers produce chocolates with far less sugar and calories than their competitors, as illustrated in Table 3
by the broad ranges within each category. This demonstrates that the amount of sugar and energy can be reduced through reformulation because similar, lower sugar content products are already available on the market. This research also makes available data on the sugar and energy content of chocolate confectionery in the UK in 2017 for future evaluation of the recently launched government-led sugar reduction programme.
In order to better understand how some manufacturers are able to produce chocolate confectionery products with lower levels of sugar and thus meet the aims of the sugar reduction programme, it is important to understand the function of sugar in chocolate and what sugar replacements are used. Sugar is added to chocolate to contribute sweetness, but also because it is a cheaper ingredient than cocoa or other types of fat. It is reported that a change in sugar content by just 1%–2% has large cost implications, which is why manufacturers may be reluctant to reformulate [15
]. However, looking at the 2017 data, it appears there are a few products with extremely low sugar content (as little as 0.5%). Certainly, there have been studies to show that chocolate can be reformulated to reduce sugar and calories [17
].There are some potential barriers in place for the food industry which can hinder, to a certain point, a gradual reduction in sugar, namely the European sweeteners directive (EC, 1994), which does not permit the use of sugar and some sugar replacements, such as polyols, in the same recipe mix. In this circumstance, a reduction in portion size may offer more scope as a means to reduce sugar (and calorie) consumption in this category, as suggested by Public Health England [12
]. Nevertheless, pressure to review the sweeteners directive (EC, 1994) will aid chocolate manufacturers in creating products with gradual reductions in sugar and also provide more choice for consumers.
Sugar-free chocolates have recently become popular because of reduced calorific value and the fact that they are both non-cariogenic and suitable for diabetics [16
]. The negative publicity surrounding sugar could also have played a role in the fact that 28% of people report they limit the amount of chocolate they eat due to the high sugar content [18
]. There are tentative signs that manufacturers and retailers are placing a greater focus on this. Chocolate products with a low/no/reduced sugar claim grew in 2015 and 2016, with activity mainly from branded manufacturers [18
]. Indeed, it was seen from the 2017 survey that there were a few chocolate confectionery products with extremely low concentrations of sugar, as low as 0.5%. However, these alternatives to well-known products, even after several years on the market, generally only account for a small proportion of sales and they are unlikely to change the market drastically [12
In order to have a large impact, reformulation of existing products on the market is needed, owing to the huge volume of chocolate consumed; even small reductions would have a significant impact on sugar and energy intakes of the population. However, if the sugar reduction programme aimed to reduce childhood obesity, then perhaps the focus should be on the energy density of chocolate confectionery products and not just sugar content, because often the high-sugar products can be the lowest in energy content, as seen from the Nestle and Mars products in Table 5
Furthermore, the 2017 survey showed that Mars, Nestle and Mondelez International are chocolate confectionery manufacturers with the highest sugar content on average. These are all multi-national companies, with large product portfolios. Some manufacturers may be reluctant to reformulate their products and reduce sugar and energy content due to fear of loss of sales. However, in recent years we have started to see many announcements of various reformulation efforts from such leading manufacturers [19
In the future, a direct comparison could be made to track manufacturers’ reformulation performances over time. It also allows researchers, policymakers and the industry to identify which manufacturers offers products with the highest sugar or energy content on average and the products with the narrowest range in sugar, energy or both, which suggests that these manufacturers are providing limited choice to their customers in terms of sugar levels or energy-density in their products.
On the other hand, research shows that bigger and growing portion sizes result in more calories being consumed and it is estimated that if larger portions were removed from the diet completely, this could reduce energy intake by up to 16% [20
]. Large serving sizes also distort the perception of what people view as a typical serving to consume [21
]. Similarly, the recent increase in products sold in ‘sharing bag’ formats could encourage over-consumption of chocolate confectionery. The Grocer reported that one in four individuals do not share, but rather eat entire sharing bags themselves [23
]. These can contain as much as 161 g sugar and 1142 kcal in a single bag. This seems counterproductive to previous efforts by the industry to standardise single serve confectionery to a 250 calorie cap back in 2014 [24
]. The 2017 data shows that on average all categories were below the 250 kcal limit per serving. However, it is notable that, based on the ranges, the peanut butter filling and caramel-coated biscuit products are the two categories with products above this limit. In any case, while it is interesting to reflect on the energy content of single-serve products, these products are in decline, with ‘sharing bags’ and block chocolate now driving growth [25
]. Since these formats are increasingly popular, manufacturers should look at packaging that encourages sharing or reduces the amount consumed in one go, e.g. resealable packs [26
Furthermore, efforts may be hindered by the fact that the UK does not have standardised serving sizes for chocolate confectionery, unlike other countries such as Australia (set at 25 g) [27
], the US and Canada (set at 40 g) [28
]. As shown in this study, there is a lack of consistency among serving sizes of similar products, therefore manufacturer-recommended serving sizes are not always comparable across similar products and not always consistent with the portion size that consumers actually eat [30
]. Displaying per serving and per pack information may confuse consumers and overcomplicate the information provided on packaging [30
Therefore, consistent serving sizes that are aligned with dietary guidelines have the potential to gradually change norms to encourage healthier eating habits and could have a meaningful effect on population health [31
]. Indeed, it may be timely that in Public Health England’s recent published analysis of the chocolate confectionery market, considered a single serve of chocolate confectionery as chocolate confectionery above 10 g or below 60 g [12
]. To take this further, manufacturers should agree on a typical serving for similar formats, for example, a reasonable serving of chocolate confectionery in a sharing bag or a block of chocolate. Our data showed that not many products exceeded the maximum calorie cap per serve of 250 kcal [12
]. This suggests the cap is not challenging enough and should be lowered.
In terms of sales, chocolate bars and blocks remain the top choices, each eaten by nearly two thirds of chocolate consumers [27
]. Therefore, targeting those products with reformulation and portion size reduction may be the key in helping manufacturers reach their 20% reduction target. As seen from the 2017 data, there is a large variation in similar block chocolate products on the market per 100 g, such as white, dark and milk chocolate, which suggests there is scope to reduce sugar in these products, as well as energy. There is opportunity to reduce intake in these categories; 39% of chocolate consumers say a smaller portion/pack size would be a good alternative to a reduction in sugar [18
]. However, transparency will be key to ensuring buy-in of such changes and to avoid consumer backlash, because 76% of consumers think chocolate brands should make it clear when they reduce the size/weight of the pack [18
Aside from reformulation and portion size restrictions, evidence shows that consumption of chocolate is influenced by advertising and marketing [32
]. Brands with high advertising spends see higher sales [33
]. In 2016 there was an upsurge in advertising spend [18
]. Advertising expenditure on chocolate confectionery increased by 15% in 2016, reaching £126 million in total [18
]. Furthermore, many confectionery brands sponsor major sporting events, creating a unique marketing opportunity for them to boost sales. Cadbury, for instance, sponsored the London 2012 Olympics [34
] and the Premier League in 2017/18 [34
], whilst the England team sponsor was Mars during the UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Euro 2016 tournament. Mars heavily promoted its range during and after the tournament in stores [35
]. Therefore, introducing advertisement restrictions based on sugar or energy contents of products could also incentivise manufacturers to reformulate their products in order to advertise them.
Finally, another area that can have an impact on chocolate confectionery sugar content is front of pack nutrition labelling. This study showed that a high proportion of products would be labelled as red for sugars. If such a labelling system was enforced, some manufacturers may be incentivised to reformulate in order to avoid putting red labels on their products.
Increasingly, companies are calling for government-led regulations, since voluntary agreements are always led by progressive companies, often putting them at an economic disadvantage. Recently, Chairman and then-CEO of Nestle, Dame Fiona Kendrick, insisted the voluntary approach to tackling childhood obesity, as laid out by Public Health England, would not go far enough and called for government regulation to tackle the health crisis [26
]. Various regulations, perhaps similar to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy, could be applied to encourage reformulation.
While there are many worthwhile findings in this study, it is important to acknowledge some of the limitations. The 1992 sugar content data used in this study was from a booklet published in 1992. We assumed the data included was a comprehensive representation of the products available on the UK market at the time. However, we are unable to verify this.
The 2017 data used were based on sugar and energy content data provided on product packaging labels in-store; hence, we relied on the accuracy of the data provided on the label. However, further studies could include sugar and energy contents determined through laboratory analysis to determine the accuracy of labels.
Furthermore, since we assumed the total sugars labelled on packaging was predominately free sugars, we may have overestimated the amount of free sugars in products that contained milk and/or dried fruit. Future analysis should seek to calculate the amount of milk and/or dried fruit used in a product to better understand the actual free sugars content of the product. This can be done by asking manufacturers to share their recipes or the amount of sugar and other ingredients used per 100 g.
This study did not analyse the fat, saturated fat, carbohydrate or protein contents of chocolate confectionery, but did collect and analyse total energy content in 2017, which would include the amount of energy coming from all these nutrients; therefore, any potential future reductions in the amount of energy can be from reductions in other nutrients too, as well as sugar.
Nevertheless, the results of this study are relevant and serve to document the sugar and energy content of chocolate confectionery sold in the UK, providing data to evaluate public health interventions, such as the Government’s sugar reduction programme, and act as an incentive for the chocolate confectionery industry to reformulate their products.