Ice cream scoops on wooden table, close-up.

    Why should Public Health England be allowed to stop us choosing between taste and fewer calories?

    26 October 2016

    You would think that people who support sugar taxes would be pleased to find that high-sugar ice cream is more expensive than low-sugar ice cream, but the permanently outraged pressure group Action On Sugar has today turned its sights on the heir to the throne for putting his name to a luxury ice cream that contains more sugar than many of the budget brands. According to the Guardian, Prince Charles’ organic range of Duchy ice cream, which is exclusively sold in Waitrose, ‘appeals to children’ and should therefore have its sugar content slashed ‘to an acceptable level’. 

    Our future king’s brand currently has 84 per cent more sugar in it than Asda’s budget brand. I have tasted neither, but I suspect the reason Waitrose can sell its ice cream at ten times the price of Asda’s is because it is a better product. It tells you a great deal about the future of food under the government’s reformulation scheme that an economy brand from a budget supermarket is being held up as a model for others to follow. To put it bluntly, if you want the government to force food companies to remove sugar, fat and salt from their products, you had better be prepared for your food to taste worse.

    The idea that there was nothing much in the government’s Childhood Obesity Strategy is one of 2016’s most successful pieces of propaganda. In truth, it not only contained one of the world’s few sugar taxes but also laid the foundations for extensive state interference in the food supply. If the public is aware of the reformulation plan, they probably think that it involves food companies voluntarily reducing sugar content in children’s food. The plan is actually far more ambitious than that.

    In 2008, David Cameron promised that the ‘era of big, bossy, state interference, top-down lever pulling is coming to an end’ but his childhood obesity strategy will leave us with a command-and-control system of food production that is the epitome of top-down lever pulling. No other country is attempting anything like it.  

    If that sounds like hyperbole, look at Public Health England’s plan for food reformulation. The first targets for a 20 per cent sugar reduction by 2020 are ‘breakfast cereals, confectionary [sic], ice-cream, yoghurt and fromage frais, morning goods, spreads, biscuits, cakes, puddings’. These are the products which ‘contribute most of the sugar that children eat’, according to PHE, but no reasonable person would describe them as children’s food. Morning goods and spreads are literally the bread and butter of an adult diet. Biscuits and cakes are more closely associated with pensioners than with children. Ice cream and confectionery arguably hold a special appeal for children, but no one has ever claimed that they are health foods. Surely nobody is surprised that ice cream contains sugar? A campaign that began with complaints about sugar being ‘hidden’ in everyday food has quickly become a crusade against whole categories of food products for which sugar is absolutely integral.

    And that is only the start. ‘From 2017,’ says Public Health England, ‘we will work towards setting targets to reduce total calories in a wider range of product categories and across all sectors, including the eating out of home sector.’ In case you are in any doubt, the out of home sector includes ‘restaurants, pubs, takeaways and fast food restaurants, cinemas, cafes, sandwich and coffee shops’. And next year, the quango promises to set about its ‘work on saturated fat’.

    That escalated quickly, didn’t it? With barely a word of consultation with the public, the unelected busy-bodies at Public Health England – whose knowledge of food production could be written on a grain of sand – are going to decide not only how much sugar and fat can be contained in food but also how much energy it can provide. This will apply not just to a handful of children’s foods but to virtually anything an adult chooses to eat inside or outside the home.

    This power grab has taken place without a shot being fired because people want to believe that their favourite foods can be modified in such a way that they can keep stuffing their faces without getting fat. They want to devolve responsibility to the food industry and the ‘public health’ lobby is more than happy to encourage the fantasy of pain-free calorie reduction. But while people like the idea of reformulated food in theory, they don’t like the taste of it in practice. If you take half the sugar out of ice cream, you have a fundamentally different product, just as if you take half the sugar out of Coke – as Coca-Cola have done with Coke Life – you have a product that will collect dust on the shelves.

    Food companies do not put sugar, fat and salt in products for fun. They do it because we like them. To put it simply, calories are tasty. Manufacturers have spent millions of pounds trying to make low-calorie food as palatable as high-calorie food, but to most people’s taste buds, they have failed. The reality is that there are only two ways to reformulate food product with fewer calories. You can make it smaller or you can make it taste worse. People complain when products are made smaller, as they did recently when Terry’s Chocolate Oranges were shrunk in size, and they abandon products when they taste worse. But there is no third way, and having a bunch of mandarins setting arbitrary targets is not going to change that.

    Some people are prepared to sacrifice taste for the benefits of consuming fewer calories. Others are not. At the moment, you have the choice. In a few years time, under Public Health England’s regime, you won’t.