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Sugar is the new tobacco

Everybody in the alcohol industry should be worried. Food crusaders have found a new target: sugar. A new and vociferous health lobby, the UK’s Action on Sugar, claims that sugar is “the new tobacco” and that its threat to health has been underestimated for years.

Viele fertige Lebensmittel enthalten Zucker. Foto: sia
Viele fertige Lebensmittel enthalten Zucker. Foto: sia

Since before Christmas last year a fierce debate has been raging in the UK’s media over the negative side-effects of sugar. The health and nutrition experts behind the anti-sugar campaign say that rising levels of obesity and type 2 diabetes could cost the country up to GBP 50 billion (USD 83 billion) a year. That’s half the annual budget of the UK’s National Health Service. In fact, according to Action on Sugar, a poor diet contributes to more disease than smoking, physical inactivity and alcohol combined and that it is time to put diet at the centre of preventative health policy.

Whether they are out to stir up a scandal or not, some academics have controversially likened sugar to addictive drugs such as tobacco or cocaine and accused the food industry of cynically hooking children and parents on junk food to maximise profits. They are asking companies to stop advertising sugary drinks and snacks to children claiming sugar has become “the alcohol of childhood.”

Sugar seems to be hard to avoid. Many will be aware that a tall Starbucks caramel frappuccino with whipped cream contains 11 teaspoons of sugar; a 330 ml can of Coca-Cola Original/Pepsi nine teaspoons; a Mars bar eight teaspoons and a supposedly healthy Yeo Valley 0% fat vanilla yogurt still five teaspoons.

But who would have known that 500 ml of Glaceau Vitamin Water contain four teaspoons of sugar, a can of Heinz Cream of Tomato soup four teaspoons and a Pot Noodle Curry two teaspoons? (Source: Action on Sugar)

In the U.S., for which data are available, there are 600,000 processed foods in the marketplace, 80 percent of which have added hidden sugar. In processed food sugar has become so ubiquitous because it is the core ingredient used by the food industry to make other ingredients (like processed flour and chemicals) taste good.

In view of the evidence and considering that it took anti-tobacco campaigners several decades to get governments on their side before they drafted draconian laws and regulations, the anti-sugar crusaders don’t want to wait that long before they see that something is being done.

In April 2014, there will be a meeting of the UK’s leading nutrition experts to discuss the issue as to how much sugar the Brits should eat. If the panel recommends that the government should advise people to eat less sugar this will have a massive impact on the food industry.

The whole anti-sugar debate comes at a time when the World Health Organisation is reportedly considering cutting the amount of sugar it recommends in our daily diet to half the current limit. Experts are proposing cutting the recommended level that people should consume from no more than 10 percent of their calories from sugar to no more than five percent, based on fears of heart disease, obesity, and tooth decay. Those new requirements equate to about five teaspoons of sugar a day. In total! That’s about five bites off a Mars bar.

In 2002, when the WHO first lowered its sugar recommendation from 25 percent to 10 percent of our daily calorific intake, there was outcry from sugar producers and sugar-exporting countries because of the economic implications of limiting sugar consumption.

No wonder there is as yet no official confirmation by the WHO that it is planning another cut. Although the WHO’s new recommendation would be largely symbolic as it has no immediate powers of enforcement, it would still be political dynamite and most governments will feel compelled to kick into action.

Auf die Bierbranche könnte eine ähnliche Diskussion zukommen, wegen des Alkohols. Foto: sia
Auf die Bierbranche könnte eine ähnliche Diskussion zukommen, wie sie nun in der Lebensmittelindustrie geführt wird, wegen des Alkohols. Foto: sia

However, the trouble with government advisory panels is that it’s hard to find experts who are not in the pockets of industry one way or another. As The Sunday Times newspaper revealed on 19 January 2014, five of the eight top nutritionists on the UK panel have received funding from the food industry.

There are growing concerns about the influence industry has on public health issue. Also in January 2014 it was revealed that the UK government caved in to pressure from the drinks industry to ditch plans to impose minimum alcohol pricing, allegedly because of a lack of „concrete evidence“. Media reported that ministers had 130 meetings with drinks firms, trade bodies and supermarkets before dropping the policy last year, which had initially been championed by the Prime Minister David Cameron himself.

In view of the high-profile sugar controversy, the alcohol industry is best advised not to feel too smug that for once they are not the target of a potential government clamp-down. Even if sugar is an altogether different issue – it affects almost everyone and not just those who drink alcohol – the alcohol industry will be drawn into the debate even if only because the double whammy of a boozed up and obese Britain makes for much better headlines.

Already, the British beer industry, through its British Beer & Pub Association (BBPA), has had to set the record straight on sugar in beer. On 5 February 2014 the tabloid newspaper The Daily Mail claimed that a pint of ale can contain nine teaspoons of sugar. A spokesperson for the BBPA immediately responded by saying that “a pint of ale typically contains less than a teaspoon and that most beer will have very little, if any, sugar added during the brewing process.”

Did The Daily Mail print a correction? No.

Brewers cannot say that have not been warned.

Veröffentlicht am 21. Februar 2014 im Branchendienst Brauwelt International.
Ina Verstl is a freelance journalist and a special feature writer and commentator for Brauwelt International.
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