UK obesity plan attacks sugar – but calculating sugar in yogurt and dairy beverages is tough

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

The UK government has released a plan to cut obesity, and dairy is included. But just what constitutes free sugar in dairy products? Pic: ©iStock/oksun70
The UK government has released a plan to cut obesity, and dairy is included. But just what constitutes free sugar in dairy products? Pic: ©iStock/oksun70

Related tags Sugar Milk Yeo valley

The UK government has published its Childhood Obesity: A Plan for Action paper.

The document notes that today nearly a third of children aged two to 15 are overweight or obese, and younger generations are becoming obese at earlier ages and staying obese for longer.

It estimates that the economic cost was £5.1bn ($6.73bn) related to overweight and obesity-related ill-health in 2014/15.

The obesity report states that the government will be launching “a broad, structured sugar reduction programme to remove sugar from the products children eat most. All sectors of the food and drinks industry will be challenged to reduce overall sugar across a range of products that contribute to children’s sugar intakes by at least 20% by 2020, including a 5% reduction in year one.

“This can be achieved through reduction of sugar levels in products, reducing portion size or shifting purchasing towards lower sugar alternatives.”

Nine categories top sugar intake

The program will initially focus on the nine categories that make the largest contributions to children’s sugar intakes, which includes, from the dairy sector, yogurts, puddings and ice cream. The other six categories are breakfast cereals, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods (e.g. pastries), and sweet spreads.

The document goes on to say that sugar reductions should be accompanied by reductions in calories and should not be compensated for by increases in saturated fat.

Indeed, the Soft Drink Industry Levy document says that The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommends that, for those aged two and upwards, average sugar intake should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy (halving the previous recommendation). The SACN also recommends that consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks should be minimized by both children and adults.

The much-publicized ‘sugar tax,’ a levy on drinks with added sugar, currently exempts the dairy category, in spite of the fact that some flavored milks are as high in sugar as well-known brands of soda drinks.

While dairy isn’t covered, that may be only a temporary respite, as the document goes on to say that work will then move on to cover the remaining relevant foods and drinks, including any products that may be out of scope of the soft drinks industry levy, for example, milk-based drinks.

No reprieve for dairy

The newly-published soft drinks industry levy document makes it clear that dairy isn’t being let off lightly.

The document states, “We want to make sure that any milk drink which is exempt from the levy is sufficiently high in milk content that the product carries the nutritional benefits of milk.

“As such we intend that only pre-packaged drinks containing at least 75% milk would be outside the scope of the levy. Where a drink contains less than 75% milk and also contains added sugar, with a total sugar content of 5g/100ml or more, then it will be subject to the levy.”

The levy document does, however, make note of the contribution of dairy to a healthy diet.

The inclusion of yogurt as a category in the obesity document, however, didn’t sit wellwith  Dairy UK chief executive Dr Judith Bryans, however.

“It is a shame to see yogurt portrayed in a negative light again,”​ she said.

She pointed to data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey (NDNS) that said the category including yogurt, fromage frais and dairy desserts accounts for 6% of sugar intake for children aged 4 to 10, compared to 14% for sugar and chocolate confectionery and 9% for cakes and pastries.

She added, “This strategy brings yogurt to the fore when it should be at the bottom of list. Yogurt is a nutrient-rich food and contains many other nutrients, not just sugar.”​ 

Bryans stated that the dairy industry is a responsible industry whose number one priority is to deliver wholesome and nutritious foods to consumers and has already taken significant steps over the years to meet consumer expectations through reformulation.

“Nutrition policies which target individual nutrients do not always provide a balanced view of foods. We need to look at the big picture when it comes to nutrition policies and finally start looking at dietary patterns as a whole.”

When is sugar ‘bad sugar?’

A table of sugar content shown on this page, however, shows that yogurt does have significant amounts of sugar – especially those specifically aimed at children.

Some of this sugar can occur naturally, from fruit, or fruit juices added to the drink, and milk itself contains sugars, which muddies the waters.

Indeed, the Capri Sun juice included in the table is simply fruit juice and spring water, yet contains 7.9g sugar per 100ml, and Rachel's Organic My First Yoghurt, which also has no added sugars, comes in with 9.8g sugar/100g.

When it comes to sugars, however, labels in the UK simply list sugars, regardless of source.

All of the dairy companies with a product in the table below were contacted for comment on the sugar content in dairy products.

Definition of total sugars and free sugars

A spokesperson for the British Nutrition Foundation clarified the situation to DairyReporter.

Source of free sugars:

from Exploring sugars in the foods we buy - Frequently Asked Questions (British Nutrition Foundation)

4-10 year-olds:​ sources of free sugars
Non-alcoholic beverages 30%
Cereals and cereal products 29%
Sugar, preserves and confectionery 22%
Milk products 12%

11-18 year-olds:​ sources of free sugars
Non-alcoholic beverages 40%
Cereals and cereal products 22%
Sugar, preserves and confectionery 21%
Milk products 7%
Alcoholic drinks 2%

Adults:​ sources of free sugars
Sugar, preserves and confectionery 26%
Non-alcoholic beverages 25%
Cereals and cereal products 21%
Alcoholic drinks 10%
Milk products 6%

“Total sugars, which are described on food labels in the carbohydrate section under ‘of which sugars,’ refers to added sugars and​ sugars naturally present in foods and drinks (including milk). 

“Free sugars (similar to the term ‘added sugars’ used in the US) are sugars added to foods by the manufacturer, cook or consumer, plus sugars present naturally in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices (this does not include sugars naturally present in milk).”

Under this definition, according to the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), “lactose naturally present in milk and milk products and sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods would be excluded.”

But it’s still included in the label under the ‘of which sugars’ line.

SACN contributed to the Eatwell Guide published earlier this year – which was criticized by dairy companies for reducing the recommended daily dairy amounts – and also published the document Carbohydrates and Health, in 2015, which recommended that population average intake of free sugars should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy.

Not-so-clean label

The US has recently modified its labeling, called Nutrition Facts labeling, which gives a figure for the total sugars, and how much of that is added sugar.

There are opponents on both sides of that argument, too, with some critics saying consumers may get confused and add the two, and others saying that sugar is sugar, regardless of source.

The American Diabetes Association, in its comments on sugar, and the new labeling in the US, agreed on the latter stance, but with a caveat.

from Exploring sugars in the foods we buy - Frequently Asked Questions (British Nutrition Foundation)

In some foods and drinks, ALL​ of the sugars are free sugars.


Sugars-sweetened beverages, fruit juice.


Some foods provide are a mix of free sugars and naturally-present sugars as they contain milk and/or fresh or dried fruit but are also sweetened with additional sugar.


Fruit yogurt

Sugars present naturally in milk (lactose) (not free sugars) or fruit (not free sugars) but also can have sugars added to sweeten the food (free sugars)

Some foods contain sugars, NONE​ of which are classed as free sugars.


Plain yogurt, milk

Sugars present naturally in milk (lactose) (not free sugars)

“While it is true that naturally occurring sugars and added sugars generally have the same physiological impact, the difference is significant when considering dietary quality. Foods high in added sugars (such as sodas and sweets) are nutritionally inferior to foods with naturally occurring sugar (such as fruit and milk),”​ the association said. 

The association said that it supported the change from sugars to total sugars and added sugars on labels.  

However, in the UK, there seems to be little appetite for a similar change to show total sugar, and how much of that sugar is added and how much is natural.

And while the UK government’s report points to a 20% reduction in sugars in the nine categories, it’s not clear whether this only refers to free sugars.

UK industry responds

A spokesperson for Müller, which produces yogurt and flavored milk drinks as part of its portfolio, told DairyReporter that the company is committed to supporting Government recommendations on reducing added sugar and through its Müllerlicious products, programmes and actions the company aims to empower consumers to make healthy and balanced lifestyle choices.

“As market leader we take our responsibilities seriously and we have a cross-functional Sugar Action Board in place focusing on this issue,”​ the spokesperson said.

“Good progress has already been made, for example in the past 10 years we have reduced 19% added sugar per pot on our core Corner products, 11% on Müllerlight core products and by 6% on Rice core products.

“We also extended our range of Frijj 40% Less Sugar products, with the recent addition of a mango & passionfruit variety. We have a number of exciting reduced sugar products in the pipeline.”

Echoing Dairy UK’s stance, Müller said, “It is important to stress that all Müller’s milk yogurt and dessert products contain milk and can be enjoyed as part of a varied and balanced diet. Milk is a natural and nutrient rich product, containing essential minerals such as calcium and vitamins which are a vital part of a healthy and nutritious diet.”

Yeo Valley supports Government efforts

A spokesperson for Yeo Valley told DairyReporter that it welcomed the Government’s plan and is fully committed to working with Public Health England to ensure the company takes a lead on considered sugar reduction.

Yeo Valley 4 Point Plan

  1. Reducing the added sugar in its existing range by up to 17% and building in lower added sugar into all new product development. Little Yeo’s children’s fromage frais contains no added refined sugar and the company has launched a plain recipe that contains no added sugar. The new Yeo Bio Live is the same for adults – low fat organic yogurt with no added refined sugar.
  2. Doing more to explain to customers the difference between naturally-occurring dairy sugars and added ‘free sugars’ and disproportionately supporting plain or natural yogurts.
  3. Improving the information on packs. By August 2017 all Yeo Valley yogurt packs will clearly state how much added sugar is in each recipe.
  4. Inspiring customers to reduce sugar in their diets. The company says it believes there are ways to get the most flavor out of natural ingredients.  

Tackling obesity, especially amongst children, is a shared responsibility and requires the commitment of government, food producers and individuals alike, the company said.

With regard to the Yeo Valley brand, the spokesperson said that around 60% of the dairy products sold under the Yeo Valley name contain no free sugars at all. Such products include fresh milk, natural yogurt, butter and fresh cream.

They added that, as a certified organic brand, Yeo Valley cannot, and would not want to, use artificial sweeteners.

Yeo Valley added that it has been implementing and evolving a '4 POINT SUGAR PLAN' since January 2014, aimed at putting the health and wellbeing of everyone who enjoys its products (especially children) at the heart of what it does as an independent family-run business.

The company says it works with partners such as the National Trust, FarmLink, Project Wild Thing and Rock Solid Race to inspire children (and their parents) to get outdoors more.

The spokesperson added that there are more than 150 recipes on the company website, many of which include smart ways to reduce fat, sugar and salt.

Plant-based products

Oatly said that it welcomes the strategy and other initiatives aimed at improving children’s health.

"It is our understanding that the (voluntary) sugar reduction recommendations will consider all foods and drinks that contribute to children’s sugar intakes, with the initial focus being on those foods that children eat most," a spokesperson told DairyReporter.

"We support this pragmatic approach and agree that all sectors should be challenged, including plant-based foods.

"We can confirm that all of Oatly’s milk alternatives have no added sugar (containing only natural sugars from oats). They are also low in saturated fat and fortified with vitamins and calcium. These milk alternatives are invaluable for many children who avoid cows’ milk, for example, those with cows’ milk allergy, lactose intolerance, vegetarians and vegans."

With regard to other plant-based products produced by Oatly, the company said that the natural ‘sweetness’ of oats allows any added sugar to be kept to a minimum.

"As our Oatly products either contain no added sugar or where sugar is added, it has been kept to a minimum, we expect the effect of the strategy to be minimal. Nevertheless, we are currently reviewing our entire product range and await the publication of targets with interest,"​ the spokesperson said.

"Oatly strongly believes that its products should contribute to our children’s health, whilst also being environmentally friendly, maintaining the environment for their future use."

Food and Drink Federation

Ian Wright CBE, director general of the Food and Drink Federation, said that food and drink manufacturers recognize their responsibility in meeting the challenges posed by obesity.

“However the target set for sugars reduction in the Plan is flawed,”​ he said. 

“It focuses too strongly on the role of this single nutrient, when obesity is caused by excess calories from any nutrient.  Moreover the target is unlikely to be technically practical across all the selected food categories. 

“Reformulation is difficult and costly:  there are different challenges for each product; recipe change can only proceed at a pace dictated by consumers.  We will of course do everything we can in the next six months to work towards a practicable reformulation solution while continuing to urge the Government to adopt a ‘whole diet’ approach.”

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