Percy Pig packaging 'wilfully misleading', says obesity campaign

He’s pink, he’s sweet, he’s cute, he’s all natural and he’s within reach of your child’s stumpy little fingers. Percy Pig is a hugely successful brand of sweets, sold by Marks & Spencer.

He turned vegetarian last year and underwent a cut in sugar. But like so many other brands of sweets, say obesity campaigners, the hype hides the truth that too many Percys will make you fat (and rot your teeth).

“Made with real fruit juice,” say the Percy Pig packets. “No artificial colours or flavourings.” They may look like the answer to a parent or grandparent’s prayers – sweets with little harm.

But the first three and therefore largest items on the list of ingredients are glucose syrup, sugar and glucose-fructose syrup. Next comes fruit juice from concentrates, which contains sugar, however natural it may be. And to round it all off, the last item is inverse sugar syrup, which is another mixture of glucose and fructose, made by heating table sugar with water.

“I just think that is not right. I think that is genuinely misleading,” said the restaurateur Henry Dimbleby at the launch of his National Food Strategy. He admits he has had “a bugbear about Percy Pigs” for a while (though the report also singles out Innocent’s lemon and lime-flavoured Juicy Water for saying “no added sugar” but omitting to mention the eight teaspoons-worth of natural sugars from grapes and pears).

The strategy report says: “One of the most egregious sins of the modern food industry is its habit of clothing itself, and its products, in false virtue … ‘No artificial colours or artificial flavourings’ trills the packaging for Percy Pig, the ‘soft gums made with fruit juice’… How many parents take the time to check the ingredients list? If they did, they might (assuming they know how ingredient lists work) be agog to find that the three largest ingredients by weight are glucose syrup, sugar and glucose-fructose-syrup.

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“I single out Marks & Spencer here, not because it is the biggest sinner, but because it is such a well-trusted company. A British institution, M&S has the pledge ‘we always strive to do the right thing’ as one of its guiding principles. If M&S – which is a great deal more scrupulous than many food companies – is guilty of such trickery, you can be sure the practice is ubiquitous.

“Food packaging is increasingly littered with boasts that, if not quite lies, are at least wilfully misleading. ‘Low fat’ often means high starch, but it never says so. The words ‘free from’ and ‘less’ are sprinkled around without context. ‘Free from’ refined sugar, but rigid with fruit sugars? Nutritional values – calories, salt, sugar etc – are given ‘per portion’, even when a portion bears no resemblance to the quantity on offer.”

An M&S spokesperson said: “All our products have clear labelling so that customers can make informed choices about what they buy. All our Percy Pigs are made with natural fruit juices and no artificial colours or flavourings and last year we also introduced a range of Percy Pigs with one third less sugar.”

No sweets can ever be healthy. The clue is in the name – they are sweet because of sugar. Fruit is very healthy, but only if you eat the whole orange and don’t squeeze six of them for the juice and throw away the fibre. Natural sugars are not magically good for you because they come from nature. So does sugar cane. Sugars make a lot of our food taste better, but the key is to have a little as an occasional, not habitual, treat – not to consume a bag of Percy Pigs because they sound healthy.

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