Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Shadow Secretary of State for Health Andy Burnham has proposed that there should be statutory limits on the amount of sugar, salt and fat in foods, particularly in children foodstuffs. Mr Burnham said:
I’m not comfortable with the idea of any child sitting down to a meal, to a bowl of food that is 40% sugar. I think that’s too high. I believe that it’s time to consider new thinking on tackling child obesity. The problem is getting worse, and we can’t carry on as we are.
Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is considering the proposals, but criticised Mr Burnham for not tackling the issue whilst in government. He told ITV News that:
My message to the supermarkets and the food manufacturers is that we will of course consider legislation. But we want to give you a chance to put your house in order and make sure that we are not shovelling sugar down the throats of young children and storing up problems for the future.
Whilst child obesity is a major concern for parents, the rate of child obesity has not inexorably risen. According to the Health and Social Care Information Centre, amongst boys between the ages of 2 and 15, the proportion classed as obese increased from 11.1% in 1995 to 19.4% in 2004, but then ebbed to 17.1% in 2011. 12.2% of girls in the same group were obese in 1995; this rate peaked in 2005 at 18.8%, but steadily decreased to 14.8% in 2010. The current level may not be comfortable for the nation’s parents and guardians; but to say “the problem is getting much worse”, as Mr Burnham did, is rather misleading.
Our consumption of sugar is also shrinking, and fat intake has only slightly increased. The Center for Agricultural Policy and Trades Studies at North Dakota State University released a paper entitled The U.S Sugar Industry under EU and Doha Trade Liberalization. Jose Andino, Richard D. Taylor and Won W. Koo showed that (page 5) in the EU-15, the original 15 nations that comprised the European Union prior to 2004, total sugar consumption tripled from 1961 to 2004, but formed a plateau at just under 15 million tons from 1991 onwards. Whilst the same total amount of sugar is being consumed, the population has increased, meaning that, on average, less sugar is actually being consumed by each person. John Kearney’s paper Food Consumption Trends and Drivers demonstrates that in industrial countries (page 2795), the calorie intake from sugar, measured in kcal per capita per day, went from 349 in 1963, to 337 in 1983, reaching 328 in 2003. This represents a decline of 6%. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produced the Food Statistics Pocketbook 2012, which included data (page 61) on the consumption of fats, saturated fatty acids, non-milk extrinsic sugars (NMES) and sodium, over the period 2001 to 2010. Fat consumption remained roughly constant, only increasing by 1%. NMES intake fluctuated, changing direction nearly every second year, eventually reaching 94% of the 2001 level. Saturated fats and sodium both showed steady declines, to 96% and 87% of their 2001 levels respectively.
Bowls of Knowledge
Mr Burnham argued that the statutory limit on sugar, salt and fat proportions may be necessary as “there are products marketed at children that contain higher levels of sugar, particularly cereals, than perhaps [the parents] realise.” Reacting to Mr Burnham’s announcement, a spokeswoman for cereal manufacturer Kellogg’s stated:
Frosties have been on sale for more than 60 years and by now we think people know there’s sugar in them – we’re not hiding it. The problem with ideas like this is that they want an easy, silver bullet solution to what is a very difficult issue. It all boils down to the fact we believe parents, and not the government, should choose what their kids eat.
The charge that parents are unaware of the contents of these products fails to assimilate the rise of clearer labelling, either in the form of Guideline Daily Amounts (GDAs) or ‘traffic light’ labelling. Rather than having a children’s puzzle on the back of the box, some breakfast cereals, such as Nestlé’s Golden Grahams, dedicate that space to comparisons of a bowl of the cereal with other breakfasts. Such demonstrations of nutritional content are used to help sell the cereal, meaning that consumers are hungry for the provided information.
The Politics of Tinkering
The most miserable elements of this proposal are its inevitability and the microscopic invasion into our lives. Prescriptions on breakfast cereals are a deathly drop of political debates from mere decades earlier, such as freedom, control, gender, race, and class, social and economic organisation, which dominated the last century.
The 20th century can be considered a cataclysmic clash between different ideologies, and different visions for the organisation of society and economy; each ideology equipped with distinct and irreconcilable notions of the constitution of humanity. The violent and barbarous conflict between the beliefs of individual liberty and collective exaltation scarred continents, and came close to swallowing the entire planet in war. The dust of that battle settled, with an undeniable winner: politics of the 21st century has now been reduced to tinkering with the peripheral strands of liberal and social democracy. The politics of tinkering that says gambling in a super-casino will revitalise a city, but gambling on slot machines in a pub should be strictly regulated. The politics of tinkering that says smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol is perfectly legal, but its consumers must be pestered and hectored by encroaching warnings and shocking announcements. The politics of tinkering that says your bowl of Frosties represents a clear and present danger to the nation, but sugar producers should be kept fat with subsidies.
Mr Burnham’s proposal is a low-content substitute for policy-making. Child obesity reached its pinnacle in 2005, but now is now steadily subsiding. Britons consume less added sugar than a decade ago, and our intake of fats has barely increased. However, political parties feel aggrandised to start prescribing the amounts of sugar and fat in all our food, and involve themselves in the sheer minutiae of British citizens. Such a ban would be childishly easy to overcome, as many people do like to sprinkle granulated sugar on their breakfast cereal. Limitations on sugar would be particularly difficult to enforce, as sugar occurs naturally in fruit. Like all adults, parents should be aware of the content of the food they buy and eat. Clearer labelling has made this process easier, but the final decision should rest with them. It is their personal responsibility.