Sugar has long been a hot political issue. The Action on Sugar campaign launched last week was about its impact on public health.
The evidence is pretty clear: the reduction of UK sugar consumption by 30% would give real public health gains. People might like sweet tastes, but the hidden sweetening of everything has surely gone too far. Data from the US has long shown how switching from added sugars to artificial so-called low-calorie sweeteners leaves the sweet tooth intact.
“It’s time we Brits grew up and started celebrating diversity of taste”
Calories are only part of the problem. Sweetening foods on such a mass scale symbolises the ‘infantilisation’ of diets that has happened, alongside counter trends that are about making diets more sophisticated. It’s time we Brits grew up and started celebrating diversity of taste.
The problem with sugar goes further than health, however. Sugar’s history is linked with slavery and Britain’s murky imperial and trading past. As the British press lavishes praise on the new film 12 Years A Slave exposing slavery in the US, we’d do well to remember the history of our sugar cane plantations. This ought to be better known. We tend to know only of heroic campaigning by Wilberforce and others. Less familiar is the ruthless vested interest that kept the system going long after its horrors were exposed.
Even then, people questioned whether energy from sugar was a good thing. It gave a quick burn, but helped workers endure long hours under poor conditions.
A clinching argument today for reducing sugar is land use. In the 2000s, developed countries woke up to the coming food crisis. This was often framed in late 18th century Malthusian terms: too many people chasing declining food supplies. This picture is wrong. There is an oversupply of food now but possibly not ahead. One good way to free up land to grow food would be to reduce the main crops used to sweeten diets: cane, beet and maize.
If ever there was a topic that illustrates the links between environment, health and society, it’s sugar. Sugar companies going Fairtrade in 2008 was a nice step. But the real goal must be to liberate land to grow decent dietary ingredients. I’d like a world with less sugar wasting space, work and health.
Tim Lang is professor of food policy at City University, London