12 Aug 2015

Heart disease, cancer and diabetes for the first time in human history pose a greater health burden worldwide than infectious disease. Many scientists and experts have linked these conditions to today’s exorbitant consumption of high-sugar foods and drinks.

Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England (PHE), believes that “too much sugar leads to excess calorie intake, weight gain and obesity, itself leading to heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes in adults.”

Cancer Research UK warns that a high-sugar diet can lead to weight gain, which in turn increases your cancer risk. Given that 1 in 20 UK cancers are linked to weight alone, wouldn’t it then be wise to reduce our sugar consumption?

In 2008, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) was asked by the Food Standards Agency (FSA) and the Government to explain any relationship between carbohydrates (included added sugars) and our poorer state of health.

In July 2015, the SACN published their recommendations:

  • Adults and children should consume no more than 5% of their daily calories from “free” sugars like corn syrup, fructose, sucrose, nectars, and fruit juice concentrate.
  • Sugar-loaded drinks should be consumed as infrequently as possible.

This goes hand in hand with the World Health Organisation statement in 2014, suggesting that the recommended level of sugar in people's diet should be halved from 10% to 5%, which is around 25 grams of sugar a day for a normal weight adult.

Duncan Selbie, Chief Executive of Public Health England (PHE), said that “we must work together to find ways to wean ourselves from the sugar habit.”

Is sugar intake then a form of addiction, especially given the point that many people cannot stop eating it once they start?

Since 1990, consumption of sugar in Britain has increased by 31%. And, according to Euromonitor, now we eat 93.2 grams per person a day – nearly four times the recommended limit!

Professor Dame Sally Davies, Chief Medical Officer for England, highlighted the addictive nature of sugar. Because of the addictive quality, she believes that the public needs to have a “big education” on how “sugar packed” juices, fizzy drinks and processed foods truly are.

So if this is all true – that sugar is addictive and produces risk factors for disease – should it be under the control of government through regulations?

Something similar happened in Denmark. In 2011 Denmark imposed a fat tax on meat, dairy products, and cooking oil. This move was introduced to limit the country’s intake of fatty foods. Less than a year and a half later that tax was abolished. Besides creating burdens and uncertainty, it was questionable whether it ever did work according to its intention, to improve public health.

Campaigners from Action on Sugar contend that there has been a massive rise in diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes since we began eating more sugar contained in processed food. Since excessive sugar consumption shows similar effects as alcohol and tobacco, it is arguable that sugar should be controlled and taxed just the same.

Obesity costs the NHS more than £5 billion every year, and treating type 2 diabetes £8.8 billion a year. Wouldn’t then a sugar policy intervention help us deal with the root cause? Should the government regulate manufacturers’ sugar use? Or do we continue to leave this issue to the consumers’ personal judgement?

The jury is still out on this one. In the meantime, it’s our job to raise awareness and educate consumers so they can hopefully make better choices.

Alex Ruani, Research Director, The Health Sciences Academy will be appearing in the Food Matters Live seminar programme in the following sessions: The brain on food: What influences our food decisions? on Wednesday 18 November and From food to genes:  how genetic expression can be changed for better health on Thursday 19 November. Register here for free entry.

Sign up to Table Talk - the Food Matters Live weekly newsletter

Receive the latest news, views and insight from the world of food, health and nutrition.