There are so many people gunning for sugar at the moment it’s difficult to keep up.
This week it was the turn of Liverpool professor of public health Simon Capewell, who used an article in the British Medical Journal to call for health warnings to be slapped on the side of sugary drinks, similar to those on cigarettes, or ant poison.
Capewell is one of more than 20 medical advisers from around the globe backing the Action on Sugar campaign, which has been a driving force behind much of the anti-sugar agenda since its launch early in the year.
But while the sheer number of medical experts on its team lends the campaign weight, the many competing demands and scientific claims is in danger of seeing it becoming disunited and muddled.
Action on Sugar has already admitted to The Grocer that the “hysterical” and “exaggerated” headlines about sugar have been deliberately trying to get the attention of politicians. Its leader referred to some in his own camp as “nutters”, while another expert advisor admitted that campaigners had claimed the UK faced soaring obesity levels despite having “no statistics” and “no evidence” to back up their “doomsday scenario”.
Capewell is the man told us at the launch of Action on Sugar in January that “sugar is the new tobacco”. Action on Sugar’s leaders have since tried to distance themselves from this view; just last month its campaign director spoke of wanting a more constructive relationship with food and drinks companies, talking about reformulating products and staving off the need for the stick approach.
So where does this latest call fit in with that? Professor Capewell claims the case for warning labels is based on the experience of everything from cigarettes to toxins and is “accepted by almost everyone not linked to the industry”. He added that a BBC poll showed 60% of adults would support health warnings similar to those on cigarette packets on food packaging.
While Action on Sugar may argue this is a personal view, it’s the latest departure from the stated aims of its expert panel.
It’s also a personal view among several of Action on Sugar’s leaders that a tax on sugar won’t work – even though it is part of its strategy to have one drawn up. Meanwhile others are split over whether we should be targeting artificial sweeteners as part of the crusade, or encouraging them as key alternatives to added sugar.
Of course nobody is suggesting that health campaigners shouldn’t be allowed to voice their opinions or have different points of view. But surely Action on Sugar and its coalition of scientists need to be clearer about what they actually want, especially with the government’s official review into the role of carbohydrates due out next month.
Action on Sugar has already shown it can make potentially big breakthroughs: talks with the industry have already resulted in Tesco revealing earlier this month it would remove all added sugar from children’s drinks and work with the group (not to mention Tesco’s subsequent move to ban sweets from all checkouts).
But it is unimaginable that the UK’s biggest retailer – or any other supermarket for that matter – Is going to want to plaster warning signs on thousands of drinks products, in the style of Benson & Hedges or Round Up weed killer.
One of Action on Sugar’s campaign aims is to “ensure clear and comprehensive nutritional labelling of added sugar content of all processed foods and beverages, using the recommended traffic light system”.
But then again, that’s not quite as dramatic a headline.