News Release

Nutritional value of foods static despite targets on calories, salt and sugar

Voluntary reformulation policies to improve foods’ nutritional values found to be ineffective. A transparent monitoring and evaluation system could drive improvements in health and nutrition.

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Nutritional value of foods static despite targets on calories, salt and sugar

image: Total sales-weighted nutrient profiling score by company and year. view more 

Credit: Bandy et al, 2021, PLOS ONE (CC-BY 4.0,

UK policies that set targets for reductions in salt, sugar and calories have not led to overall improvements in the nutritional value of food products. Research published in the open access journal PLOS ONE evaluates foods produced by the top ten food and beverage companies over a four year period and recommends further policy action be taken to support consumers to eat more healthily.

Poor diet is associated with chronic diseases and complications for individuals and leads to a substantial burden on health systems. Public Health England (PHE) has introduced voluntary reformulation targets focused on salt, sugar and calories to encourage change by manufacturers. Dr Lauren Bandy and colleagues at the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Population Health wanted to assess how the nutritional quality of products changed over time. They identified the top ten UK food and drink manufacturers and their brands and used an established nutrient profile model to look at the nutrient composition data for each item for four consecutive years - 2015, 16, 17 and 18. 

They found no change in the nutrient profiling score of products over time, though one company, Kelloggs, showed a small overall improvement, driven by reducing sugar in two products: Coco-pops and Special K. There was a small increase in the number of products classified as healthy: 46 percent in 2015 to 47 percent in 2018, and an increase in sales that were considered healthy: 44 percent in 2015 to 51 percent in 2018. This is likely because of reductions in the sugar content of some soft drinks, following an industry levy introduced in 2018. Of the top five brands sold by each of the ten companies only six improved their nutritional score by 20 percent or more. 

Dr Lauren Bandy of the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Population Health says: “Our study shows it is possible to monitor the overall healthiness of company product portfolios and chart changes over time. We saw little evidence that the recommended current targets have made a significant difference and we believe that without more policy action and a transparent monitoring and evaluation system, it is unlikely there will be meaningful change.”

She adds: “We know that if we are to see the reduction in diet-related disease that is needed in the population, the food and beverage industry has to step up and improve the nutritional quality of its products. Our study shows that so far, not much has been done to improve the healthiness of household brands owned by top companies, with the exception of soft drinks, which are subject to a tax that has encouraged lower sugar levels. The current focus on voluntary, single-nutrient reformulation targets might want to be reconsidered by policy makers.”



Citation: Bandy LK, Hollowell S, Harrington R, Scarborough P, Jebb S, Rayner M (2021) Assessing the healthiness of UK food companies’ product portfolios using food sales and nutrient composition data. PLoS ONE 16(8): e0254833.


Funding: LB, SH and MR are funded by the Nuffield Department of Population Health, University of Oxford. PS is funded by a British Heart Foundation Intermediate Basic Science Research Fellowship (FS/15/34/31656). All authors are part of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). SJ is also funded by the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care Oxford at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and is an NIHR senior investigator. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.


Competing Interests: The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.


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