Public Health England’s World’s First Sugar Accumulator


AWARDS: The Drum DADIs; D&AD, Webby People’s Voice, Campaign Media



Public Health England (PHE) is an executive agency of the Department of Health in the United Kingdom. Public Health England and its team of dedicated scientists, researchers and public health professionals aim to protect and improve the nation’s health. For years, PHE has been setting off the alarm bells about England’s sugar consumption. The agency’s report Sugar Reduction: the Evidence for Action calls out for a 20% sugar tax and strict regulations on marketing unhealthy foods to children.

Sadly, harsh statistics are often forgotten when it comes to everyday grocery shopping. Limited time, huge shelves filled with 20 different types of bread, confusing nutrition labels and a hyperactive kid begging you for that chocolate bar – sounds like a battle, doesn’t it? Most of us would like to make healthier choices but in this hectic environment, it’s much easier to stick with what you know. Therefore, it’s up to the retailers to manipulate us into choosing a banana instead of that bag of crisps. The situation is slightly less dramatic in the online space. Brits are super keen on doing their everyday shopping online. Despite giving more power to the customer, there are numerous cases proving that changing consumer behaviour is much easier in the digital environment.




Despite being a young institution (established in 2013), Public Health England has already stirred up some pretty serious discussions around the nation’s health. PHE’s highly qualified staff of 5,000 professionals has set out to change the Brits’ unhealthy habits. Some of their biggest work during the past years has been focusing on the nation’s sugar consumption. PHE’s report Sugar Reduction: the Evidence for Action ended up all over UK’s press and understandably so: the numbers are VERY alarming. The Government is offered with a list of recommendations including restricting marketing on unhealthy foods, reducing the number of price promotions offered on unhealthy foods, introducing a sugar tax on soft drinks, implementing a clearer food labelling system to name a few. PHE is also behind the Change4Life programme, the country’s first national social marketing campaign to tackle the causes of obesity.


The average Brit consumes nearly 175 sugar cubes each week (most of it consumed in so called ‘hidden sugars’). None of us should get more than 5% (or roughly six teaspoons) per day of our daily dietary energy from sugar. In reality the number is nearing to 15% both for children and adults. Processed foods are packed with hidden sugars. It’s literally everywhere! That small drip of ketchup on your plate contains around 4g sugar and the number is ten times as high for that refreshing can of soda. Consuming too much of the sweet stuff has led to 62% of adults in England being either overweight (37%) or obese (25%). It was time to fight the nation’s sugar-craze.

Laura Robinson, Senior Creative at MEC UK describes the campaign’s early days: “Public Health England runs an awareness campaign every January. These campaigns are aimed to support healthy changes in Brits’ lives. The last couple of years they have had a big focus around sugar and more recently the accumulation of sugar. People are often unaware of the sugar content in the food and drink they buy and consume and also unaware about just how easily it can stack up. We already had a partnership with from previous years. We wanted to give our partnership a new and smart dimension that would really encourage behaviour change at the point of purchase and highlight the accumulation of sugar in everyday products.”




MEC UK certainly went beyond traditional media! They came up with the world’s first Sugar Accumulator tool, which allowed online shoppers to track the sugar in their baskets. The tool visualised sugar accumulation and encouraged healthier options i.e. the stress was taken off the customer’s shoulders. No need to track anything, just shop and swap (when needed). All products had been previously categorized (low, medium or high-sugar products) according to the Government nutritional criteria.


The real-time tool was kept simple. Nutritional traffic light colours alarmed shoppers about high-sugar items. Moreover, the accumulator was quick to recommend lower-sugar alternatives. The Sugar Accumulator was backed up by a display activation plus some mobile and email marketing.


Popular online retailer worked closely with MEC UK on developing the tool. The agency received open access to shopper purchase data and individual product data. Laura describes their long-term partnership:

“mySupermarket has been an invaluable media partner and we regularly run a lot of digital display advertising on their site. They have a lot of data to share about the products and their nutritional values and by working with an online retailer like mySupermarket, we gain access to all this nutritional data in one’s basket. That in turn enabled us to build an algorithm for our Sugar Accumulator tool. As a result, every product could be rated as low, medium or high in sugar based on its sugar nutritional content.”


Naturally, we need to consider the brands’ side of the story. For example, Coke could be promoting some discounted products on the retailer’s page whilst consumers are being discouraged from buying sugary drinks. It’s a bit contradicting.

We were glad to hear that several brands were actually very happy about PHE’s project. They wanted to get badged as a lower sugar player and asked the team to perform a ‘sugar check’ on their products.



  • Shoppers became more aware of the accumulation of sugar in their shop;
  • A dramatic change of buying behaviour in favour of lower-sugar products recommended by Public Health England.

“The results have been brilliant. Over a million shoppers used the tool during the first month of the campaign. As a result, we drove an extra half a million pounds’ worth of spend on lower sugar products for mySupermarket. The reason why we created the Sugar Accumulator in an online environment is because it enables us to easily track real behaviour changes through shopper basket data. By comparing the nutritional content of baskets year on year we could see and that people’s shopping habits were changing,” says Laura from MEC UK.

Happy to confirm that the tool is still running! They’ve done some further tweaking on the accumulator and added a visual metric to the tool (in the form of sugar cubes). People just find it much easier to assess the amount of sugar if they have a clear visual marker in front of them.




As mentioned above, there are two key points in changing consumer behaviour. It’s important to make your project as visual and as simple as possible. The accumulator removed almost every single obstacle, which people would have to tackle in a physical shop. They were able to do their everyday shopping whilst being guided by clear visual markers. Furthermore, the tool would have been half as useful without the ‘healthy swap’ function. It’s one thing to point out unhealthy products, but finding a suitable alternative is often what it comes down to.


The marketing/advertising landscape is changing very rapidly. It’s time to forget about traditional agency roles. Media agencies are entering the advertising agencies’ territory whilst creative geniuses are moving towards increasing specialization. And that’s not a bad thing really. It means we are pressured out of our comfort zones. The Sugar Accumulator is a clear example of blurring agency roles.

Laura Robinson, Senior Creative at MEC UK was really proud of them being able to push the boundaries:

“The Sugar Accumulator was a ground-breaking project for both MEC and Public Health England. Working in partnership with mySupermarket on such an innovative solution meant that we were able to creatively turn data into something useful for shoppers and demonstrate that we do more than just media planning or buying. We can actually build real products and technologies and references back to the point that an idea can come from anywhere.”



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