In Defence of Liberty

Driven by data; ridden with liberty.

Sugar is not ‘the new tabacco’

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.

The headline was sensationalist and nonsensical. (Photo: Christopher Snowdon)

The headline was sensationalist and nonsensical. (Photo: Christopher Snowdon)

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%.

In spite of Action on Sugar's claims, total sugar consumption has decreased. (Visualisation: Datawrapper)

In spite of Action on Sugar’s claims, total sugar consumption has decreased. (Visualisation: Datawrapper)

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.

Obesity rates have gradually increased, but may soon fall. (Visualisation: Datawrapper)

Obesity rates have gradually increased, but may soon fall. (Visualisation: Datawrapper)

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.

A Miserly Campaign

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.

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4 comments on “Sugar is not ‘the new tabacco’

  1. Ivan D
    January 10, 2014

    “Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focussed on profit not health”

    To healthists such as Capewell the only merit of any consumable product lies in what he and his pals deem to be its value to health. Pleasure, enjoyment, taste etc are all irrelevant to practitioners of his religion.

    He knows absolutely nothing about industry but is quite happy to speculate about the motives of those not fortunate enough to share his well appointed ivory tower. I actually have some sympathy with his views won unnecessary sugar but find his methods and his accusations contemptible. He is an unpleasant authoritarian parasite and I resent paying for him and his kind.

    • Anthony Masters
      January 10, 2014

      It does seem that pleasure and taste are entirely ignored from Capewell’s stance. If companies are seeking profit, then they can best do that by satiating people’s needs and wants. Unfortunately, the idea that not everyone wants to lead a purely healthy life — I myself love chocolate — is an anathema to Capewell’s view of the world.

      • Ivan D
        January 10, 2014

        He is entitled to his world view but not at my expense. My money would be better spent on employing medics who care for and about people rather than misanthropes who play public health power games.

      • Anthony Masters
        January 13, 2014

        Apologies for the late reply. I agree. An amount of the health budget does go towards fulfilling these campaigns against sugar and the like. Hectoring should not be part of public policy.

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