In the past fortnight, sugar has been singled out as a lead cause of the obesity epidemic in the UK. Some have even gone as far as to brand it the ‘new tobacco’. Fuelled by comments made by members of the new campaign group, Action on Sugar, these views are misleading and unhelpful. Even worse, they are likely to confuse consumers who are already unsure about what to eat as part of a healthy, balanced diet.
There is no silver bullet to solving the obesity crisis in the UK, and it is irresponsible if we encourage consumers to think that there is. The overwhelming body of scientific evidence is that it is the over-consumption of calories and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles that are causing the imbalance between energy (calories) in and energy (calories) out - the key factor driving rising obesity rates.
“We want a sense of balance to be restored to the sugar debate”
Central to Action on Sugar’s campaign is its call for a 20% to 30% reduction in sugar added to food - a move it says will take 100 calories a day out of a typical diet. It claims this is enough to halt or reverse rising levels of obesity. However, the increase in the incidence of obesity in the UK is a result of a range of factors that are more complex than this. For example, Government Family Food statistics show there has actually been a reduction of almost 12%* in total sugars consumption in the UK over the past decade, so the suggestion that an increase in obesity results only from increased sugar consumption is not supported by current statistics.
The campaign’s focus on sugar and calories may also lead people to wrongly assume that sugar is higher in calories than other food groups. Sugar has no more calories than other key food groups. It has four calories per gram, which is the same as protein and starch, and lower than alcohol (seven calories) and fat (nine calories). Oversimplifying the debate to one of reducing sugar intake runs the risk of grossly misleading consumers.
AB Sugar is not alone in its concern about claims made by Action on Sugar. Diabetes UK, noted “it is important to be clear that we want to reduce sugar consumption because having too much can easily lead to weight gain, as is true with foods high in fat. So reducing the amount of sugar in our diets is not all that we need to do”.
The British Nutrition Foundation noted: “Despite the widespread recognition that many people in the UK need to cut down intake of added sugar the recent media headlines describing sugar as a leading cause of obesity and diabetes and comparing it with tobacco are misleading.” It also said: “An excess of total calories (from any food or drink source), which is not balanced with sufficient physical activity, can lead to weight gain.”
Waging war on one food group is clearly not the answer. We believe the public would benefit from a better overall understanding about the food they put in their bodies. Our own research** suggests there is still a huge amount of confusion. For example, two-fifths of people rarely or never check the food label before buying a product and 67% do not track their daily calorie intake.
Let’s be clear, our task as an industry is to support and facilitate constructive debate on diet and lifestyle. AB Sugar is committed to playing its part in this, and is supportive of measures that help people better manage their calorie intake and diet. However, it is crucial that the discussion about how to combat obesity is founded on facts, scientific evidence and sensible dialogue.
We want consumers to be able to make up their own minds about sugar and how it can be consumed as part of a healthy diet and active lifestyle by providing them with the facts and science. For example, correcting misconceptions that sugars are ‘hidden’ in products when, in reality, all sugars are declared on a product’s nutritional label. We want a sense of balance to be restored to the obesity debate.
We acknowledge there is no quick fix. Obesity is a complex problem that requires an integrated solution - one that we are keen to play a role in.
Mark Carr is group chief executive of AB Sugar