The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) draft report on carbohydrates and health published last week should be a wake-up call to the government, food industry and consumers.
The Responsibility Deal needs to be much more ambitious”
The SACN report made it clear that as a population we consume too much sugar and too little fibre. Its draft advice is for the population to lower consumption of free sugars (those added to foods and naturally present in syrups and unsweetened juices) to about 5% of daily energy intake. This means five to six teaspoons a day for a woman and seven to eight for a man.
Across all population groups, we are failing to meet the current advice, let alone this stricter target. SACN recommended that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as fizzy drinks and squash, be minimised in both children and adults.
Apart from the serious health consequences, including type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and certain cancers linked to weight gain and tooth decay, there are enormous economic costs. Obesity is estimated to cost the NHS £4.7bn per year and tooth decay £3.4bn. Public Health England is now assessing measures to cut sugar intakes.
Discussions through the Responsibility Deal are ongoing but not enough progress has been made. While there is a calorie reduction pledge, which 39 companies have signed up to, it is vague and leaves it to companies to determine the level of action they want to take - whether reformulation of their products or information initiatives.
More specific action is needed on sugar and much clearer industry-wide reduction targets are required across the key product categories that contribute free sugars to most people’s diets. These should be developed in a similar way to the salt reduction targets, encouraging incremental reductions while taking account of quality and taste.
A more concerted effort is also needed to tackle promotions. This includes looking at the balance of products included in supermarket price and other in-store promotions, but also making sure there is a more responsible approach to marketing to children, including teenagers. This group consumes 50% more sugar than is recommended on average, with soft drinks the largest single source.
The Responsibility Deal needs to be much more ambitious, with greater direction from the government to ensure meaningful change.
While information alone will never be enough, it is now clearly time for manufacturers who have yet to commit to using traffic light labelling to adopt the national scheme and make it clearer to people which products are high in sugar.
Sue Davies is chief policy adviser at Which?