Now that fat is no longer the bogeyman, we have a new villain carrying the can (pun intended) as the main cause of obesity.
Step up sugar and soda drinks. They join bacon on the list of things we love that seemingly hate us and our bodies.
As someone who has lost 12 stone and who is a Jamie Oliver Food Revolution Ambassador, I applaud Jamie’s efforts to highlight the sugar content in many soft drinks. I think we can all agree that many of us drink too much soda and our waistlines and gum lines are paying the price. A reduction in sugar consumption has shown to improve insulin sensitivity and reduce blood sugar levels and fat in the liver. I cut my sugar drastically and now look younger, have better skin, lowerered my blood sugar and even cured myself of sleep apnoea. Of course, I also cut my calories and lost lots of weight, which might also have contributed to my healthier look. It’s never one thing, as my friend Rannoch will often say.
The idea of introducing a sugar tax and displaying more clearly the sugar content on foods is not a new one and it has been successful in other countries; notably Mexico which saw a 6-12% reduction in soft drink purchasing over two years and up to 17% reduction in lower income households. Some research suggests some simply purchased cheaper brands, but the impact on the soft drink industry in Mexico is real.
Taxation can work. A 20% sugar tax could generate £1 billion each year. Money that our NHS and partners could use to fund health initiatives. Money that could be spent on saving lives and educating future generations.
We constantly read about how much the obese cost the NHS with greater need for larger beds, larger machines and increased treatments. This tax could help to address this burgeoning bill while possibly helping us to trim our waistlines.
What’s not to like about taxing sugar?
Well, for a start, it IS a regressive tax. Sugar consumption is greater in poorer communities and obesity is more prevalent in poorer communities. We already heavily tax people’s smoking and drinking habits and simply taxing another unhealthy product shouldn’t be much different. Yet, we are seeing a backlash. People are reading every day that something new is killing them, that something that was killing them is now good for them. They are confused and they feel that they are being told what they can and cannot do and what they can and cannot consume. This is fuelling apathy and mistrust.
Yes, we can shake our heads and our fingers and suggest that they accept some personal responsibility, but I cite my FSEM Lay View that suggests that we need to win both hearts and minds.
Before we rush to demonize sugar, it does have some benefits. Ask any runner how much they love Jelly Babies and sugar has proven to reduce cortisol levels caused by stress. It is never one thing.
We should look beyond the proposed sugar tax and look at the other (less controversial…to consumers, at least) proposals that Public Health England support and call for. Proposals that need to be considered before a sugar tax is implemented.
- Reducing portion sizes. Am I the only person who buys family sized bags of sweets with the intention of making them last and then races to the bottom of the pack? We could, of course, show some self constraint, but many of us that are obese have a destructive relationship with food. Urging us to eat less does little to reduce our urges to eat more. Increasing a litre of Coke by 20 pence will not necessarily prevent people from still buying it.
- More regulation of how high sugar goods are marketed, especially to children. For me, cereal manufacturers are almost criminal in their pursuit of young consumers. The shapes, flavours and marketing of breakfast cereals entice children and too many parents associate a bowl of cereal as a greeeeeaaaat way to start the day, not knowing that often a third of the bowl is sugar.
- Further controls over how high-sugar foods are displayed in stores. In my local Tesco (naming and shaming, but not alone), the end of every aisle has high-sugar foods on promotion. These goods are heavily discounted to the extent that it is often not much more expensive to buy four of five bars than one. Again, we could criticise people and parents, but does that actually achieve anything? Instead, let’s encourage better promotion of healthier options and motivate and inspire people to make healthier purchases.
Sugar isn’t just found in huge quantities in soft drinks and sweets. It’s hidden everywhere. Ready meals that are so convenient often have up to 40 grams of sugar in each pack; barbecue sauce has as much sugar as a glazed doughnut and often fat free translates to extra sugar. Manufacturers want their foods to both taste better and be preserved for longer. Sugar achieves this.
If we are to reduce the amount of sugar to the recommended level of 5-10% of our daily calorific intake, we need to encourage and enable people to cook simple and wholesome meals. If we are to tax sugar, use some of the proceeds to create nationwide cooking campaigns that bring children and parents together and make learning to cook fun. We need to address the myth that eating healthy is more expensive and we need to look at how our food manufacturers and retailers produce, promote and price food.
The largely ineffective Responsibility Deal provided little incentive to businesses to fulfil their pledges and it has been argued that many of its successes would have happened without it. We cannot rely on food manufacturers to think of anything but their shareholders and, as such, they need to be regulated and given incentives (or penalties for non-compliance) to reduce sugar levels in food.
And finally, let’s move more. Being active doesn’t give you a free ride (well, unless you are cycling) but it can allow you to have a little of the things that we enjoy. Remember, it is never one thing.