Brexiteers have been forced to shoulder a lot of blame in recent months. Slower growth forecasts. Jamie Oliver’s restaurant closures. Our Eurovision flop. But of all the charges levelled against Leave voters since last June, few have sparked as much outrage as the claim that Brexit is causing ‘shrinkflation’: the reduction in weight of packaged goods, such as crisps, chocolate, and biscuits, without a corresponding decrease in price.
Last November, after Toblerone reduced the weight of their chocolate bars by spacing out their distinctive peaks, John Prescott declared that Brexit ‘just got real’ – causing a minor Twitterstorm. The Guardian caught wind, publishing a weepy-eyed comment piece in which Toblerone’s size reduction is bleakly imagined – along with ‘child poverty and hate crime’ – as part of a ‘slow, ominous, collective sigh’ characterising Britain’s post-Brexit national mood. Report after report describes fresh examples of the phenomenon, with the cause invariably identified as increased import costs caused by a weaker pound.
As it happens, however, these Toblemoaners have bought a myth. A recent study from the ONS has analysed shrinkflation from January 2012 to June 2017. It confirms what most of us have long suspected about many of our favourite treats: 2,529 products (around 2000 of which are food products) have become smaller during the period analysed, while only 614 have become larger. Predictably, ‘sugar, jam, syrups, chocolate and confectionery’ have shrunk the most. Strikingly, however, the ONS analysis shows ‘[no] noticeable change following the referendum that would point towards a Brexit effect’. The worst month for shrinkflation was, by far, April 2014.
The much-touted Brexit shrinkflation exists only in the anti-Brexit imagination. What, then, is this cause? The ONS offers no explanation. Manufacturers, for their part, have typically blamed long-term rising material costs. This explanation, however, is at best partial. Sugar and cocoa butter account for around 50 per cent and 20 per cent of the cost of a chocolate bar respectively. Though the price of cocoa butter spiked in 2012, it plummeted by about 30 per cent earlier this year to a four-year low – at which point M&Ms shrunk by 15 per cent. And, as the ONS study points out, European import prices for sugar are at their lowest level since IMF records began in 1991.
To get the full story here, we need shift focus away from manufacturers and towards Public Health England’s little-known sugar reduction programme. What began a few years ago as a campaign against ‘hidden’ sugars has metastasised into one of the most ambitious food and drink reformulation plans in British history. As set out in documents here, here and here, PHE aims to reduce the sugar content in ‘cereals, yoghurts, biscuits, cakes, confectionery, morning goods (e.g. pastries), puddings, ice cream and sweet spreads’ by 5 per cent in 2017 and 20 per cent in 2020. Though frequently dressed up in the language of ‘guidelines’ (companies are ‘encouraged’ and ‘challenged’ not to bring out new high-sugar products), manufacturers face the threat of a new sugar tax, of the kind levied in the soft drinks industry, if they don’t dance to PHE’s tune.
Now, given that consumers generally expect the targeted products to be sweet, there are only two ways for manufacturers to follow the guidelines and stay in business: either substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar, or reduce the size of each portion. The former route might be feasible in the case of some soft drinks, but for the products listed above – especially chocolate – sweeteners simply do not work. They fundamentally alter the taste and constitution of the products. Jams develop mould. Chocolate ‘spread’ becomes less of a spread and more of a sauce. Artificially-sweetened chocolate not only tastes horrendous, it also features a somewhat inconvenient laxative effect. Absent some miraculous advance in artificial sweetening technology, then, portion size reduction is the only available option for many manufacturers. This – not ‘rising material costs’ – is the primary cause of our shrinking chocolate.
PHE’s reformulation programme is unprecedented. It covers not only the products we buy in supermarkets but also the so-called ‘eat out of home sector’: restaurants, cafes, bars and the like. Never before has such a small band of unelected quangocrats been allowed such comprehensive influence over the production and consumption of so many products. We all know that too much sugar is bad for us, and most of us choose health over excessive indulgence; others, however, risk health for more delicious, sugary treats. Fine. It’s a personal choice, determined by what we value most. Our nannying, finger-wagging public health body is making a mockery of our capacity as autonomous adults to make this choice for ourselves.
PHE have tried to block this concern by dressing up their reformulation as part of a wider drive to tackle childhood obesity. Don’t be fooled. According to PHE’s own statistics, though the targeted products make up 52 per cent of the sugar intake of 4 to 10 year olds, they also account for 39 per cent of adults’ sugar consumption. Indeed, PHE openly admits that ‘adults generally eat the same food [as children]’, cheering the benefits of their sugar reduction scheme for ‘all family members who are who are consuming too much sugar’. As much as PHE implores us to ‘think of the children’ it’s clear that the scheme is aimed at adults too.
The scheme does, however, rest on the assumption that adults are, psychologically, very much like children: beholden to the big brands; easily duped by their expensive advertising. PHE’s measures of success are weighted by volume of units sold, which means the big players are always under the most pressure to change. Their assumption is that consumers will stick blindly to their favourite brands while the products sold under that brand are slyly, but fundamentally, altered. This assumption is backed up only by consumer polling which suggests some demand for less sugar and smaller portion sizes.
But consumers are ‘polled’ much more accurately every day through the choices that they make in the market, and this ‘poll’ shows a clear preference for current sugar levels and against sweeteners and size reductions. As the big brands change, they will simply lose market share as consumers switch to smaller brands; these smaller brands will, in turn, will face new pressure from PHE to alter their products, and consumers will move on again. The whole scheme is a pointless, expensive merry-go-round, which will do little more than ruin our favourite brands, get us less chocolate for the same money, or both.
Don’t expect PHE to stop its interference when its targets are inevitably not met. It’s already tackling salt in much the same way as sugar. Next on their naughty list is saturated fat. Because PHE needs perpetual public health crises to justify its existence, it is always sure to find one – to the detriment of consumers. This wide-ranging food reformulation programme is all happening, moreover, without even the pretence of public consultation.
More needs to be done to show consumers who’s really ripping them off. The first step is moving beyond our kneejerk reaction to shrinkflation and related phenomena – ‘blame it on Brexit’ – and looking more closely at the subtle but powerful impact of our economically illiterate public health lobby.