9 Jan 2014

Now cut sugar in food, say successful salt campaigners

Buoyed by their success in getting manufacturers to reduce the amount of salt in processed food, scientists are now hoping the same campaign tactics will see reductions in harmful levels of sugar too.

Healthy fruit and sugar cubes on a scales (Getty)

The newly formed group Action on Sugar aims to reduce the amount of refined sugar added to food in the UK, ensuring that it does not make up more than 5 per cent of people’s total energy intake.

To do this it hopes to persuade food manufacturers to “universally and gradually reduce the added sugar content of processed foods”, by reaching “a consensus with the food manufacturers and suppliers that there is strong evidence that refined sugar is a major cause of obesity and has other adverse health effects.”

But in a statement, Barbara Gallani, of the Food and Drink Federation, said:

“Sugars, or any other nutrient 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 new campaign has been welcomed by Professor Kevin Fenton, the director of health and wellbeing at the government-funded agency Public Health England, who said: “It is important to raise awareness of the detrimental impact excess sugar intake can have on an individual’s health.”

The government policy is that individuals should focus on overall calorie reduction and increased exercise.

Low fat, high sugar

Sugar is present across the range of processed foods.

Shoppers may not be overly surprised at the Action on Sugar calculation that a regular can of Pepsi or Coca-Cola Original contains nine teaspoons of sugar. But they may be less aware of the four teaspoons of sugar in a 500ml bottle of Glaceau Defense Vitamin Water, or the three teaspoons in a 200g serving of Ragu tomato and basil pasta sauce (in all cases the measurement includes naturally occuring and added sugars).

Campaigners have long argued that low-fat products can mislead consumers because sugar is added to preserve flavour when fat is taken out. Action on Sugar found that there are five teaspoons of sugar in 150g of Yeo Valley Family Farm zero per cent fat vanilla yoghurt.

Cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra, the science director of Action on Sugar, said “The food industry needs to immediately reduce the amount of sugar that they are adding, particularly to children’s foods, and stop targeting children with massive advertising for high calorie snacks and soft drinks.”

An unwinnable battle?

Given the prevalence of sugar across the range of food products, how likely is this campaign to succeed?

The scientists behind it are confident they know how to tackle big vested interests – because they have done it before.

Many of them are involved in Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) which has already seen some notable successes. Between 2003-2007 there was a 45 per cent reduction in the average amount of salt in ready meals on sale in UK supermarkets (from 3.3g to 1.8g salt per serving).

Founded in 1996, when pressure from the food industry led to the government rejecting the recommendations on salt of its own advisory committee, CASH fought long and hard to realise many of their objectives, winning round government in the process.

The UK is recognised as a world leader in salt reduction, and the CASH method of influencing policy and practice has been scientifically analysed to allow it to be put to work in other countries.

Campaign blueprint

The UK experience shows that having established a target for salt consumption in the population (less than 6g a day), campaigners can work with the food industry to set specific targets and timeframes for each food category – in the first instance voluntarily, but with the threat of legislation.

It is not an easy process, as Allied Bakeries, makers of the Kingsmill bread range, make clear in their description of the changes they made:

“Salt reformulation is a time-consuming process. A number of trials are needed for every new product recipe produced at each of our UK bakeries. We test to make sure the new recipe meets our high performance and quality standards throughout the baking process and over the shelf-life of each product. In all, we complete around one hundred bakery trials each time we make a significant adjustment to the salt content of our product range.”

Research in progress

In 1991 the Committee on Medical Aspects of Food Policy (COMA), advised the government that intake of non-milk extrinsic sugars should not exceed 11 per cent of food energy (equal to about 60g per day). This was entirely based on the risk of tooth decay.

In 2014 the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), which has replaced COMA, is due to publish its report after undertaking a review into the evidence on carbohydrates and health, including sugars and sources of sugars. This will include an assessment of the literature on obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Regardless of the state of research, politicians have already begun to call for action on sugar levels – in January 2013 Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that he was prepared to consider legislation:

“My message to the supermarkets and the food manufacturers is that we will of course consider legislation, but we want to give you a chance to put your house in order.”

One of the clear lessons learned by the successful salt campaigners was that those firms which make progress should be praised, but those that do not should be very publically named and shamed.

The food industry has been warned.