According to ‘The Times’ Jeremy Hunt, the Health Secretary, recently told a private meeting with 100 food producers that eating out is “no longer a treat” and that chain restaurants, takeaways and fast food retailers should reduce the size of their puddings, cakes and pastries – and those that don’t will be publicly named and shamed! It is hard to think of a more egregious example of nanny-state meddling than this. But what is this based on and how will it work?
Apparently consumers will be able to check companies’ efforts on a website, although exactly how comparisons will be made has yet to be decided. This comes alongside food producers being asked to cut sugar in key products by 20% over the next five years, and the introduction of the sugar levy on soft drinks’ producers, due to come into effect in 2018. This is all about the government and Public Health England engaging in the ‘war on sugar’ in order to combat the ‘obesity epidemic’. Simply giving people information and letting them make a free choice is no longer enough - “Doing nothing is not an option”, Hunt said.
So, let’s just look at a couple of facts. There is no doubt that adult obesity has increased over the past 40 years across the world. The number of people in the UK with a body mass index over 30 has risen from 8% of the population to around 30%. Obesity is strongly associated with a number of chronic illnesses, particularly type-2 diabetes, although obesity is by no means the only cause. The question at issue here is how strongly is sugar consumption implicated in the rise in obesity and its related diseases? It is not so long ago that the fat content of our diet was regarded as the main cause of obesity, since when dietary fads such as the Atkins Diet have suggested that carbohydrates, which break down into sugars, are now regarded by many as the new ‘bad guy’ on the block.
Sugar consumption peaked in the UK in 1961 at just over 50 kilograms per capita. Today it is just over 30 kilograms, so the rise in obesity has correlated with a fall in the consumption of sugar added to our diets, including the sugar added to dessert products. But all sugars are not the same. Or are they? Insofar as blood sugar levels are a health worry, it is important to note that the blood sugar concerned, glucose, is not the same as the sugar we add to our tea or coffee, which is sucrose. Sucrose is a combination of two simpler sugars - glucose and fructose - which are separated when sucrose is digested. A great deal of concern has also been expressed about the use of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but EU regulations strictly control HFCS production so it is far less commonly used in the UK than it is in the United States.
Whilst sucrose is an important source of glucose in the Western diet it is by no means the only one. Foods high in starch such as potatoes, rise, pasta and bread also break down into sucrose once consumed. So, even without food products that contain added sugar the switch from diets high in saturated fats to ones high in carbohydrates – which was official advice for nearly 40 years – will have increased our consumption of sugar.
A lot of the government policies in relation to diet and disease seem to reflect the views of noisy campaign groups like ‘Action on Sugar’. The justification they provide for government intervention is that ‘Big Food’ and ‘Big Sugar’ (like ‘Big Alcohol’) are engaged in a deliberate strategy of addiction. Sugar, according to Robert Lustig, the activist academic behind Action on Sugar, is an addictive substance and much of our food, particularly processed foods, is deliberately spiked with sugar to keep us hooked. And of course alcohol is an addictive substance too! This fantasy of a conspiracy of addiction leading to a form of covert corporate coercion is the basis on which groups like Action on Sugar seek to persuade government that people don’t really make free choices when they buy Jamie Oliver’s Eton Mess, or a can of cola.
It seems to me that people have plenty of information about the content of what they eat and drink and that there are a wide variety of ‘healthy choices’ available to them. Government intervention is only justified if there is a failure of the market to provide either information or choice and that is clearly not the case. But that won’t stop nanny wagging her finger! Now, where did I put my pack of M&M’s?