Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Sugar is ‘the new tobacco’, boomed the Daily Mail headline, with so much bombast it requires an accompaniment of drums. These were the words of Simon Capewell, Professor of Clinical Epidemiology at the University of Liverpool:
Sugar is the new tobacco. Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focussed on profit not health. The obesity epidemic is already generating a huge burden of disease and death.
Action on Sugar was established by the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH). According to the BBC, “Action on Sugar will set targets for the food industry to add less sugar bit by bit so that consumers do not notice the difference in taste.” Action on Sugar claims these targets “could reverse or halt the obesity epidemic”, help people avoid “hidden sugars”, and linked added sugar to developing type-2 diabetes.
Sugar consumption has been falling. Moreover, products sold in the UK usually display nutritional information, including the amount of total sugar. It is unsurprising that tomato soup contains sugar, since tomato is a fruit. Dr Victoria Burley, a senior nutritional epidemiology lecturer at the University of Leeds, notes: “Consumption of sugar has been decreasing steadily since the 1960s. Sales of sweets, jams and preserves have all gone down.” The National Diet and Nutrition Survey found that total sugar consumption decreased by 8.9% for males, and 3.9% for females, over the past decade. The intake of non-milk extrinsic sugars (NMES), which includes ‘added sugar’, was also reduced in all age and sex categories, apart from women over the age of 65. In this category, NMES consumption increased by 1.8%.
According to the Health & Social Care Information Centre, obesity levels have grown slowly but persistently. This is not an epidemic, but a gradual transformation. These increases in obesity, when sugar consumption has fallen, severely punctures the idea that sugar intake alone causes fatness and obesity.
Whilst Diabetes UK is supportive of Action on Sugar, their Chief Executive Barbara Young stated:
The evidence that sugar has a specific further role in causing Type-2 diabetes, other than by increasing our weight, is not clear.
Despite Dr Aseem Malhotra claiming “added sugar has no nutritional value”, sugar is a necessary part of a healthy diet, providing our body with short-term boosts of energy and the glucose required to function. Overconsumption of sugar – as with all other food – can be problematic. Anti-tobacco campaigners have long highlighted its supposed uniqueness, rejecting comparisons with other products as a fiction manufactured by the tobacco industry.
Moreover, tobacco use is strongly linked with about one quarter of all UK cancer deaths, whilst sugar is not considered a cause of death. Professor Graham McGregor, the Chairman of Action on Sugar, has said: “We can’t let the food industry carry on poisoning us, killing us.” Action on Sugar has fused a bad analogy with bad biology and bad sociology. This miserly campaign aims to remove personal choice and make our lives less sweet.