THE launch of the new health non-governmental organisation Action on Sugar in January sparked a media furore around sugars which continues to dominate headlines and confound consumers.
With some within Action on Sugar casting sugar as the ‘new tobacco’, an attention-grabbing but fundamentally irresponsible simile, we are in real danger of undermining public health messaging with alarmist messages.
Coverage thus far has highlighted that unfortunately some still take an over-simplistic approach to tackling obesity. Sugars, or any other nutrients for that matter, consumed as part of a varied and balanced diet are not a cause of obesity, to which there is no simple or single solution. The coverage has not reflected the consensus on sugars amongst the science and health communities – that we should not be singling out particular components in food and vilifying them, but rather we should be promoting a balanced diet.
Nutrition policy should be based on science. In the UK the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, an independent expert committee, is due to publish its extensive review of the evidence of the role of carbohydrates including sugar in the diet this summer.
Consumers and industry professionals alike have not been given the full picture on sugars in recent months. The coverage around the World Health Organization (WHO)’s new draft guidance on sugars, published for public consultation last month, offers an example of the persistent misunderstanding around the science behind dietary advice on sugars. The WHO’s draft guidance supports the existing UK policy on sugars, that intake of free sugars should not exceed 10% of total energy. That guidance – like the UK government’s policy on intake of sugars, is solely based on studies on dental caries.
Where the WHO refers to weight gain in the draft guidance, it supports current government policy and industry action to reduce calories in the diet. It concludes that any weight gain associated with sugars is due to excess calorie consumption and not to any other property of sugars. Excess calories, whether from fat, sugars or other nutrients, can result in weight gain, which is why food and drink producers are working to reduce calories in their products.
Where the much reported but ‘conditional’ recommendation of a further reduction of sugars intake to below 5% of total energy is made, the report cautions that there is greater uncertainty about the quality of the underpinning science base. WHO emphasises the need for ‘substantial debate and involvement of stakeholders before this recommendation can be adopted as policy’.
While we await the outcome of WHO’s public consultation, it is the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s review due in June which will offer a more thorough analysis of the evidence on carbohydrates, including sugars, and health taken from numerous studies which meet strict criteria for quality.
FDF will continue to work with our members, food and drink producers of varying sizes and sectors, to play our part in empowering consumers to make healthier choices. Our track record in cutting salt, virtually eliminating artificial trans fats from our products, working to help consumers cut their saturated fat and calorie intake, and providing clear labelling demonstrates our collective willingness to take action on health that is based on robust evidence.