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On 12 October 2016, the Sugarwise kite mark founders organised a summit in the House of Commons, aimed at discussing current states of obesity, sugar overconsumption and ways of promoting low sugar and overall healthier diets. The perfectly balanced blend of health specialists, public health campaign and charity representatives, as well as food and drink manufacturers, produced a truly memorable debate.
The Sugarwise certification was founded by Rend Platings, a mother of one and health activist, who sought clarity on the free sugar content of packaged food and drink. Free sugars are regular table sugars, as well as those present in syrups, honeys or juices, and are ones that health departments urge us to limit to less than 5% of our total energy intake. Today’s nutrition labels provide information on carbohydrates and sugars (also known as ‘of which sugar’); however, these combine intrinsic sugars, such as those present in dairy or whole fruit and vegetables, as well as those added in manufacturing processes. Therefore, dependent on nutrition labels, even Passport Nutrition defines sugar as all sugars in food. At the moment, there is no legal requirement, nor incentive, for manufacturers to distinguish between the information on free sugars on their packaging; however, this may change very soon.
Today, the majority of the UK’s food labelling is governed by the European Union. According to Jean Savigny, Vice President of the European Food Law Association and one of the panellists at The Sugar Summit, Brexit may lead to tremendous disruption in the UK’s food labelling, further adding to the confusion of what is “good” or “bad” in terms of nutrition. According to Passport Nutrition, packaged food makes up 71% of the total calories in the average British person’s diet; therefore, new labels such as Sugarwise are absolutely crucial for maintaining knowledge and transparency of the food we eat.
At the moment, the Sugarwise label is awarded to all UK brands which have a free sugar content that comprises 0-5% of their total calories. Products sweetened with natural and artificial high-intensity sweeteners may also receive this certification, provided their sugar content does not exceed the requirement. In comparison, the European Commission’s “sugar-free” nutrition claim applies to foods which contain no more than 5g of sugar per 100g, referring to the aforementioned total sugars within food (intrinsic and added).
The nearly 2-hour debate held in the House of Commons touched on a number of topics, beginning with Tam Fry from the National Obesity Forum praising the long-awaited announcement of the sugar tax on sugary drinks in the UK. He also said that it is not a done deal and a lot of work needs to be carried out before implementation. He also commented on the WHO’s most recent recommendation that all sugary drinks should be 20% more expensive (with the hopes of reducing intake of these products by 20%), saying that, in order to be effective, the recommended figure should be even higher. Recent research confirms this, showing that a 20% sin tax would evoke an average 17% reduction in consumption of the levied products, with a disproportionately higher effect on low-income households. In addition to this, some preliminary Euromonitor International research also shows that, thus far, the sin tax on food and drink has been mostly ineffective in reducing both purchases of the levied items, as well as the overweight and obesity prevalence in the countries implementing the aforementioned tax.
The debate then moved on to hear from drinks and confectionery manufacturers; these shared that a reduction in sugar is very difficult, and that replacement with sweeteners is expensive in terms of production and distribution. The additional lack of “sex appeal” of sugar-free food and drink items make them secondary choices for consumers, and, according to some producers, they cannot even compete with the company’s own regular-sugar products. Some health campaign representatives and health specialists, including the well-acclaimed nutritionist Jenny Rosborough and cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, both agreed that replacing sugar with sweeteners is necessary for now, as it will lead to a calorie-intake reduction. However, besides the point that the jury is still out on sweeteners in terms of their health effects, replacing all sweet-tasting food with high-intensity sweeteners is not the answer to the obesity crisis we are dealing with today. In fact, we must reduce sweetness preference and reformulate to reduce rather than substitute sugar. In addition, and in support of this, our Ethical Labels system shows that the No Artificial Sweeteners label, a clean label signifying no artificial or genetically modified ingredients, is worth USD11.1 billion globally, and USD566 million in the UK alone. This seems to suggest that some consumers would chose “natural” sugar over an artificial sweetener.
Sugar has been evidenced to hugely impact weight and obesity, but also, as recently shown, it is a direct risk factor for type 2 diabetes. Sugar-sweetened beverages in particular are under a lot of scrutiny in terms of the responsibility they hold in the world’s weight gain over the past couple of decades. However, at the end of the day, it is the calorie excess, and not sugar excess, that causes weight gain. The nature of “liquid calories” (such as those in sugarised drinks) is that they offer no compensatory mechanism for calorie intake, eventually leading to calorie overconsumption. The same can be said about alcoholic drinks. Though alcohol, not sugar, is the main source of calories in these, our Euromonitor International data show that 29 of the 54 countries researched consume more calories form alcoholic drinks than from soft drinks. This puts things into perspective.
Sugar is certainly overindulged globally and Western consumers continue to play a pivotal role in this. While there is more to obesity than just sugar, it is one aspect of the typical Western diet that needs to be addressed more fervently than ever. This is what has forged the opportunity for initiatives such as the Sugarwise kite mark to fill that void; providing nutritional education, promoting healthier diets and lifestyles, and increasing transparency to the consumer. Current labelling regulations do not tell the whole nutritional story. The Sugarwise kite mark initiative will look to play an important role going forward in encouraging consumers to take full ownership of their nutritional choices around sugar and companies to showcase their low-sugar product innovations.