Sugar: The Breaking Bad

For years we've been hearing about how bad sugar consumption is for us. Consuming too many foods and drinks high in sugar can lead to weight gain, tooth decay and increases the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers. In the UK sugar intakes of all population groups contributes to 12-15% of energy, which is three times above the daily recommendation of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN). They have advised that the average population recommended maximum of intake of sugar should not exceed 5% of total dietary energy. SACN also recommend that the consumption of sugar sweetened drinks be minimised by adults and children. These recommendations have been accepted by the UK government and this past week, Public Health England published its 'Sugar Reduction:The Evidence for Action'. Having reviewed the evidence, the report concludes that no one single action will be effective in reducing sugar intake. Instead it sets out a broad structured approach which not only targets the reduction of sugar in everyday food and drink but also includes reduction of opportunities to market and advertise high sugar food (especially to children), a possible sugar tax or price increase of at least 10-20% on high sugar goods and full sugar soft drinks and the adoption of government buying standards for food and catering services across the public sector including the NHS.

One thing that struck me about this report is that price promotions increase the amount of food and drink that people buy by around 20%. Price promotions include promotions in supermarkets, restaurants and takeaways and they are highest in Europe where they account for 40% of all expenditure on food and drinks consumed at home. Higher sugar products are promoted more than any other foods and increase the amount of sugar we consume by 6%. The most common sources of sugar in the UK are soft drinks (excluding fruit juices), biscuits, cakes, buns, pastries, puddings, breakfast cereals and alcoholic drinks (for adults). Table sugar and confectionery contribute 21% of our sugar intake, fruit juice 10% whilst soft drinks provide 29% of daily sugar. There is also evidence that a high sugar intake is associated with deprivation and low income.

If we achieve the SACN recommendation of 5% daily sugar intake within 10 years, we'll have averted 4,100 deaths, avoided 204,000 caries in teeth (i.e. teeth that are not missing, decayed or filled) and will have saved the NHS a total of £484 million due to reductions in health conditions associated with higher intakes of sugar. Pretty impressive! Of course, the question is how do we as a society do this?

I know the report focused on broader societal approaches but I'm a firm believer in the one small step for (wo)man is one big step for (wo)mankind. By making changes to my life, I can influence my family, friends and those around me. By cutting out processed sugar I can make a big difference. I never drank fizzy drinks but I do like an alcoholic tipple now and then and chocolate is a main downfall. There are plenty of cookbooks and blogs out there from Deliciously Ella to Davina McCall's sugar free cooking that may be a little too puritan for tastes but replacing processed sugar with alternatives like honey and maple syrup (yes I know sugar is in there too but your body needs to break it down, plus honey has protective qualities against viruses) are a step in the right direction. Sweeteners are another safe option. They reduce the sugar and calorie content of food and drink and make them less harmful to your teeth. Still consumers are a little wary about them, especially as they've had a hard rap in the media. Nevertheless, you can still enjoy sugar just less of it. After all, we still need to keep our eyes on the other culprits such as salt and saturated fats. Not forgetting of course portion sizes. Yep, guilty of that especially since I was brought up in the 'finish everything on your plate before leaving the table' era. Not good when the portions in restaurants are same for tall big men and small petite women! Still, it's food for thought and I certainly am listening!