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The food and drink industry is no stranger to celebrity. Many brands rely on celebrities to endorse products and feature in adverts because well, in short, celebrity sells. However they can also be powerful campaigners. Jamie Oliver, the TV chef and healthy food ambassador has moved on from school meals – which he successfully helped to reform after publically exposing their poor quality the early 2000s – and turned his attention to sugar. In front of the Health Select Committee, he’s followed a raft of public health groups in proposing the Government introduce a 20% on sugar-sweetened beverages and suggested that the amount of sugar in a product be expressed on the label in terms of numbers of teaspoons, giving the public the “clear, sharp information” they need to make a healthier choice.
The overall point that Jamie Oliver is trying to make – that something needs to be done to curb the UK’s excessive consumption of sugar in order to control overweight and obesity and diet related disease – is a valid one. The UK Government recommends that people aged 11 years and over consume no more than 30g of added sugars a day, yet data from Euromonitor International shows that the average UK consumer purchases 93g of sugars, or 23 teaspoons, from packaged food and soft drinks, with 21g, or 5 teaspoons, coming from soft drinks alone.
But is the answer to tax soft drinks? The industry argues not, as it targets one product category when others contribute to sugar consumption too. And they do have a point, given that the average UK consumer purchases 22g of sugar a day from bakery products (including cakes, biscuits and breakfast cereals), 17g from confectionery and 14g from dairy. Evidence from countries that have imposed a tax, including France and Mexico, suggests that raising the price of sugar sweetened beverages – you can buy 2 litres of own label supermarket cola which contains 150g of sugar for as little as fifty pence in the UK – does reduce consumption. Whether this single action significantly reduces diet related disease is yet to be seen.
Amount of sugar purchased by the average UK consumer by category, expressed in teaspoons
What about putting teaspoons on the label? Anecdotally, it’s simple to say that expressing the amount of sugar in a product in terms of teaspoons is easier to understand and would no doubt deliver a shock factor. However, do consumers know how many teaspoons of sugar they’re supposed to consume a day? Is it really easier than understanding grams? Would labelling in teaspoons really lead to reduced consumption of soft drinks and sugar? And would this in turn lead to a reduction in diet related disease? These are questions that first need answering with some sort of scientific evidence. While Jamie Oliver might be a bit premature in suggesting the teaspoon label as a viable improvement to current labelling, he’s certainly not the first to suggest a tax on sugar sweetened beverages; campaign groups, public health researchers and medical professionals have all done the same in the last few years. The difference, of course, is that celebrity sells.