UK Action on Sugar group slams majority of children’s yogurts

By Jim Cornall

- Last updated on GMT

Action on Sugar is calling for government restrictions on child-friendly packaging, and nutrition and health claims on yogurts (high or medium in sugar), to stop misleading parents. Pic: Getty Images/kzenon
Action on Sugar is calling for government restrictions on child-friendly packaging, and nutrition and health claims on yogurts (high or medium in sugar), to stop misleading parents. Pic: Getty Images/kzenon

Related tags Sugar sugar tax Yoghurt Yogurt Coconut Nestlé

The UK group Action on Sugar is calling for a complete ban on child-friendly yogurt packaging and on misleading nutrition and health claims following its new product survey, which it said shows only 5% of yogurts with child-friendly packaging contain low levels of sugar.

The group, based at Queen Mary University in London, said more than half (63%) of the 100 children’s yogurts surveyed provide a third or more of a 4 to 6-year-old’s maximum daily intake for added sugars per serve.

According to its results, the worst offender was Nestlé Rolo Mix-in Toffee yogurt, with 5½ teaspoons of sugar per serve (22g) – which it said is as much sugar as 16 Malted Milk Biscuits.

The Swiss-headquartered food giant also came in second place with its Nestlé Smarties Vanilla Flavour yogurt, with four teaspoons of sugar per serve (16.5g).

The group of experts is now calling for government restrictions on using child-friendly packaging, and nutrition and health claims on yogurts (high or medium in sugar), to stop misleading parents.

Despite the yogurts containing added sugar, syrups and fruit concentrates (all of which are ‘free sugars’ known to be harmful to children’s health and their teeth), claims about calcium, vitamin D, and being high in protein are often championed on pack.

The group said this creates a distorted ‘health halo’ suggesting the products are completely healthy with only sugars from natural sources such as lactose from milk, which it said distracts parents from scrutinizing the nutrition labels more carefully.

 Although the average total fat content of the surveyed yogurts is generally low i.e. three-quarters (77%) obtain a green rating for fat, the saturated fat in the yogurts, which contributes to poor heart health, is less positive, Action on Sugar said.

Two-thirds (67%) of yogurts surveyed were either medium or high in saturated fat. The group said the two products with the highest saturated fat content were dairy-alternative products which are often perceived to be healthier. These were The Coconut Collaborative Strawberry & Banana and The Coconut Collaborative Mango & Passionfruit (6.1g saturated fat per 100g).

Registered nutritionist Dr Kawther Hashem, campaign lead at Action on Sugar, said, “Parents can easily be misled when walking through the yogurt aisle in the supermarket. Often companies try to avert our eyes from seeing the significant amount of sugar listed in the ingredients and nutrition tables, by using healthy sounding claims and cartoony images on the front of pack. 

“Given only 5% of yogurts with child friendly packaging would have a green coloured label as being ‘healthy’ for sugar, food companies must make every effort to reduce the sugar in these products, particularly the ones targeted so explicitly towards children.”  

Katharine Jenner, campaign director at Action on Sugar, said, “Clever marketing techniques such as advertising, promotions and packaging are powerful tools to get children hooked on the sweet stuff from a young age and for life.  The government’s obesity strategy is taking bold steps to tackle unhealthy advertising and promotions. Now they need to ensure food companies only use cartoons and health halo statements on their healthier products, allowing parents to see more of what is good for their children.”​ 

Graham MacGregor CBE, chairman of Action on Sugar, and Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine, Queen Mary University of London, added, “With 10 children out of every class of 30 leaving primary school are overweight or obese, and the overall cost of obesity to wider society is estimated at £27bn ($36.9bn) per year. Given this, it is imperative that food companies now act more responsibly and commit to reformulate sugar, salt and calorie reduction, instead of foisting unhealthy products that contain child friendly packaging with misleading nutrition and health claims.”

Amelia Lake, dietitian, public health nutritionist and professor of public health nutrition, Teesside University and associate director of Fuse, The Centre for Translational Research in Public Health said, “As a mother of young children and a dietitian I know only too well the effects of pester power. The statistics from this research aren’t a surprise, but what is surprising is that we are allowing such high sugar foods to be directly marketed to children. It is time for action, make it clear these foods are not a healthy choice. I hope the companies and the policy makers take these important research findings on board and make food choices easier for busy parents.”

The survey, conducted between April and May 2021, included the collection of calories, sugar, salt, fiber, and vitamin data per 100g and per serving for yogurts that may appeal to children.

Data was collected online via retailer websites and in store at Aldi, ASDA, Lidl, Ocado (which covers Marks & Spencer’s), Morrisons, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, The Co-operative and Waitrose.

What was included in the survey: Chilled yogurts with more than 50% dairy or dairy alternative, as defined by retailer’s categorisation on their website; small and medium sized yogurt pots that are aimed for children; child-friendly imagery (such as cartoon characters); child-friendly style (such as bright colors, animated); child-friendly brand character (such as Peppa Pig); child-friendly font (such as balloon letters and child friendly fronts); child-friendly media partnerships (such as Disney); child friendly offers (such as a free game); and child-themed language (such as ‘made for kids’).

Excluded from the survey were drinking yogurt, ambient yogurt with less than 50% dairy or dairy alternative, animations that are part of company logos and non-dairy puddings e.g. chocolate mousse.

Dairy Reporter contacted both Nestlé and The Coconut Collaborative for their comments to the report.

Nestlé said in a statement, “Lactalis Nestlé Chilled Dairy UK, a joint venture between Lactalis and Nestlé, is fully committed to the PHE sugar reduction program and has an ongoing program of innovation, reformulation and portion reduction to remove calories and reduce sugar in our products. Indeed we have reduced sugar by more than 20% in our yogurt products since the baseline start of this program in 2015, which is the equivalent of 4.8 tonnes of sugar removed.

“We have had a program of reformulation in our children’s dairy products for many years. We have made changes to the products which are inherently challenging to reformulate to a sufficient degree without impacting taste and quality. In addition, any new products we develop will contain lower than average or no added sugar.”

The Coconut Collaborative told Dairy Reporter coconut is naturally very low in sugar, and the company does not add any artificial flavorings or refined sugars to its yogurts. 

“So what little sugar there comes naturally from the fruits.  As highlighted by the Action on Sugar charity, our Kids yogurt has one of the lowest sugar contents in the market, which is a major positive,” ​the company said.

“As regards the saturated fat in our yogurts – this comes naturally from the coconut.  However, the saturated fat in coconut contains medium-chain fatty acids, which studies suggest are easier and faster metabolized in our body when compared with long-chain fatty acids.  The BBC did a detailed study on this a couple of years ago and their results supported the view that coconut is good for you.  

“As with anything, our yogurts are intended to be consumed as part of a balanced diet.”