The “great sugar debate” that gained a lot of momentum over the last few years, comes to a dramatic climax this summer as health experts inform the public about the effects of consuming too much sugar. Won on undeniable facts, the debate presents sugar as the dastardly evil, ruining the health of the nation. The effects of consuming too much sugar includes increased risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease and tooth decay. Excessive sugar intake is also linked to the increase in obesity. It comes as a stark warning that for many years we have been warned about eating too much fat when all along it was sugar – its addictive qualities enticing us to consume more whilst providing no dietary benefits have put health experts in a spin setting out an array of solutions to wean people off the “white stuff.” There are many reasons why Health experts are keen to support initiatives to inform the public about the health risks in a bid to change eating habits. But is this enough? If sugar is as addictive is it enough to just tell people to stop? If sugar is also this harmful, should we not as a society seek to do more to remove it from our everyday foods? In the same way that cigarettes have slowly been weaned from general sight, should we as a society collectively remove sugar away from our general sight only available on a need to buy basis for occasional treats and seasonal gifts?
Being discussed at Parliamentary level, it was revealed through the Department of Health’s scientific advisers that the recommended that daily sugar intake should be cut from 10% of daily energy intake to 5%, equivalent to about six teaspoons of sugar (96 calories). Following this, Public Health England proposed the key interventions to Sugar reduction in the 2014 report: “Sugar reduction: responding to the challenge”. The reports indicate the immediate need to act because:
“Reducing sugar consumption, particularly in the most disadvantaged groups in society, is also likely to improve health equality, have a positive impact on the nation’s mental health and wellbeing, and save costs to the NHS and local authorities by reducing social care costs. The most recent estimates are that excess body weight and poor dental health costs the NHS alone £4.7billion and £3.4 billion a year respectively. The social care costs of these conditions, which will fall to local authorities, are difficult to estimate, but are likely to be significant.”
The immediate actions proposed by Public Health England included: the launch of a digital marketing package to help families and individuals reduce their sugar intake, a focused national behaviour change campaign on sugar reduction, refresh of the “5 a day” campaign, and advice on fruit juice and smoothies, advising departments, industry, non-governmental organisations and a revision of key dietary messaging and improvement tools, such as the “eatwell plate.” and Change4Life messaging.
In addition, the food industry contributed to initiatives that aim to improve diets that specifically relate to sugar. Member companies of the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) have agreed that it is vital to clearly label sugar content on food packaging. They also recognise the challenges of doing this;
“Most packaged products carry front-of-pack nutrition information for energy (calories) plus fat, saturates, sugars and salt in grams. Dietitians encourage people to look at all of this information, not only sugar, so they know what's in their overall diet.”
Re-educating the nation will go a long to changing attitudes to food consumption and the effects of consuming sugary food and drinks. Educating the public in different ways such as through local authority, by labelling, by promotions, by online and digital initiatives allow Health advisers to reach different groups of society and put forward the messages in the best way appropriate for the key target group.
Another way to approach the debate is the view that if sugar is so dangerous, why not impose restrictions either on food producers, on supermarkets that promote them so strongly in stores, on advertisers that place adverts in pride of place to target children and young people or on the public that buy cheap sugary produce at the expense of looking for alternative healthier options? The advertising standards authority recognise that food advertising is influential in how consumers decide what to buy and are “committed to ensuring ads do not contain anything that is likely to result in a child’s physical, mental or moral harm.” They also state that advertising is not a “social engineer” meaning that what is presented in advertising should not be used to decide if something is good or bad. This doesn’t take into account the pressurised nature of persuasive techniques. The whole intention of advertising is to encourage someone to heed the message so even though consumers should take some responsibility for what they purchase, that is going to happen only if they are strong in willpower.
Taking the lead on taxing sugary drinks, Jamie Oliver’s restaurants have added a 10p tax on all sugary drinks served with the profits going to fund Sustain, a charity that supports better food and farming advocates, food and agriculture policies and practices that enhance the health and welfare of people and animals. However, FDF advise that
“Existing VAT on food and drink raises well over £10bn for the Exchequer annually. Additional taxes on certain products have not been found to influence diets over the long-term where they've been trialled.”
By putting the onus of reducing sugar consumption on the public through higher prices and increased taxation, government will be able to raise funds and potentially re-invest it into such initiatives. However, who is to say that increased prices or taxation of sugary food will change the eating habits of consumers especially when we already know that sugar is addictive.
If sugar is so damaging, can it be outlawed and restricted in the same way the alcohol and cigarettes are? Correct labelling of food on packing is already a direct EU requirement but should restrictions on food producers go further than this? Clearly the World Health Organisation release of new daily recommendations has already influenced food producers and inspired change in the interest of maintaining customer relations. Unilever have stated on their website that they have taken on board the advice given by experts:
“We recognise that energy intake from sugar should be limited, in line with recommendations by a number of organisations, such as the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association. We use sugar responsibly, while delivering great-tasting and appealing products. We are reducing sugar in our existing products such as Lipton and Brisk ice teas. We are also developing new, lower-sugar drinks using non-nutritive sweeteners like Stevia (steviol glycosides). This is an ingredient derived from the leaf of the Stevia rebaudiana plant and helps to maintain the level of sweetness that people expect.”
By placing the responsibility of reducing sugar intake of the public in the hands of food producers is to place all our trust in private companies to do the right thing. How much are we willing to trust these companies to do their duty for the benefit of the public while balancing their profit margins? Will consumers heed the advice of health experts quickly enough to influence the food advisors to change the product ingredients? or will the changing taste of food negatively affect the product profit margins? After all we often forget about the foods that have a surprisingly high sugar content. A BBC report cited that a tomato based pasta sauce had 13g of sugar in a third of the jar. Which should come first, educating the consumer or expect producers to change their products? Making the environment easier for consumers to choose healthier food is a key strategic objective from the Public Health England report. Educating the public and expecting a duty of care on producers should go hand in hand.
Abi the fashion blogger