Professor Graham MacGregor, Chair of Action on Sugar, discusses stopping excessive sugar consumption, whilst investigating obesity and type 2 diabetes
Over the past five years we have worked successfully with both the food industry and the government over the harmful effects to health of excessive sugar consumption and other causes of obesity.
Whilst some positive progress has been made, it is evident that these policies are not yet sufficient to reverse the increase in obesity and type 2 Diabetes – not to mention various related cancers, heart disease and tooth decay.
If Theresa May and her ministers are to finally tackle this ‘burning injustice’ of health inequality, we need a much more robust and hard-hitting plan to take immediate effect.
The government-led Sugar Reduction Programme is a step in the right direction, asking companies to remove 20% of sugar by 2020 in the nine food categories most commonly consumed by children. However, there are get-out clauses for the food industry with no apparent penalties for non-compliance.
Whilst these targets go some way to encourage businesses to reformulate and to add healthier options, they should be made mandatory not voluntary. Furthermore, there are no plans to set further sugar reduction targets (assuming the current ones are achieved by 2020).
The following strategies are imperative if we are to see significant and lasting change. The government should be encouraged to extend the soft drinks industry levy to include an energy-density levy on confectionery, ensure that mandatory nutritional labelling on menus and packaging in the out-of-home sector is implemented in response to the recent consultation, and ensure the awaited consultation on marketing restrictions includes robust proposals to ban marketing of foods high in fat, salt and sugar. In addition, setting mandatory targets for reducing the huge salt, fat and sugar content in many processed foods could make a genuine difference.
To put this into context, cigarette advertising has been prohibited in the UK for many years because it causes cancer and cardiovascular disease, yet arguably unhealthy foods and drinks now pose an even greater threat.
It is estimated that obesity is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths each year, on average depriving an individual of an extra nine years of life and preventing many from reaching retirement age. In fact, obesity could soon overtake tobacco smoking as the biggest cause of preventable death.
Despite this, products can still be advertised without strong restrictions to vulnerable children. Surely this is both unethical and irresponsible?
The government must also acknowledge that fat is a bigger contributor to calories in the diet than sugar and ensure that the fat and calorie reduction programme removes 20% of the calories in food by 2024. This should focus on saturated fat, particularly palm oil, as this will have the additional benefit of reducing cholesterol levels as well as overall calories.
We all know the figures are stark – half of all Britons will be obese in thirty years and doing nothing is simply not an option. We need tough measures now to ensure compliance and put public health first before the profits of the food industry.