Will shrinking chocolate bars keep sugar consumption under wraps?

  • Published: 08 November 2014,
  • The Say Team

Do chocolate bars seem smaller nowadays than in your youth? They do to me, and as someone who remembers when a Mars bar cost 27p (compared with ~60p today), that was quite a while ago. In this age of super-size portions and increasing consumption, why are chocolate bar manufacturers bucking the sizing trend?

In a word – sugar. Many large food companies have signed up to the government’s flagship healthy eating pledge, promising to help consumers increase fruit and vegetable intake and reducing calorie consumption. This is welcome news for groups seeking to curb the rise in obesity and diabetes which is more and more regularly blamed on the over-consumption of sugar. It seems that shrinking chocolate bars is the easiest way for food manufacturers to comply with the pledge. It’s also profitable as chocolate bar prices are unchanged – apparently to balance increasing production costs.

But is a reduction in size really enough to stop our trend of over-consumption, or is it just box-ticking by firms who are banking that unhealthy eating habits are so ingrained into us that a small reduction in bar size won’t affect our habits? There’s evidence that manufacturers aren’t even sticking to the recommendations of the pledge, according to the Telegraph, so is this a toothless gesture by the government? Keith Vaz, the Labour chairman of the Commons home affairs select committee, said: “The problem with the Responsibility Deal is that it is all voluntary”, evidenced by some firms appearing to pick and choose the products for which they’re reducing sugar, rather than cutting amounts across the board.

The crux of the problem of overconsumption is evolutionary – we’re a species which has only relatively recently had to deal with living in conditions of plenty. Food availability has only been almost total since the 1950s, and we’re genetically programmed to eat fatty and sugary foods whenever they’re available, as in the past, they often weren’t. So there’s an argument for saying that the government is on the right track in trying to reduce the availability of these foods which rather than focussing on changing evolutionary traits that are hard-wired into us.

Flying in the face of this initiative are energy drink manufacturers, whose portion sizes are on the increase. Red Bull (whose sales account for 43% of the energy drink market) is now available in cans of almost half a litre which contain 52 grams (13 teaspoons) of sugar – almost two thirds of the recommended daily allowance of sugar for children aged between five and ten. A recent survey showed that one-in-four British under-tens had consumed at least one energy drink in the last year. There are calls for a sugar tax from lobbying groups like Action on Sugar, but this is still in the fledgling stages.

That ‘sugar is the new fat’ seems unquestionable, but there is a long way to go before enough pressure is applied to manufacturers of sugar-heavy products to force the industry to reduce sugar levels in their products.

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