Obesity, sugar and government (in)action – a scandal and a con

John Freeman
Monday, June 29, 2015

More than a year ago, Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer, told the select committee that unless the government was “strong” with food and drink manufacturers, it was unlikely they would take action to reduce sugar in their products.

She said she believed "research will find sugar is addictive" and that "we may need to introduce a sugar tax".

In response, the food industry said it was working on reducing sugar in products. The Department of Health has a "responsibility deal”, which is a series of voluntary pledges by industry designed to tackle issues such as obesity.

Dame Sally said: "We have a generation of children who, because they're overweight and their lack of activity, may well not live as long as my generation. They will be the first generation that live less, and that is of great concern."

This was shocking at the time, and remains so, although other things have since grabbed the news agenda. Have things moved on in any way?

Recently, I happened to pick up a small can dropped on the ground near our local school, with the intention of putting it in a waste bin. Having read the information on the label, instead I brought it home and wrote this blog.

The thrust of my message is that voluntary action is clearly not working and, indeed, excessively sugary food and drinks are still being actively marketed as “healthy”.

I don’t want to demonise one manufacturer, as the whole industry has questions to answer and action to take, but I have to give the details to show just how serious the position is. And the product claims to be “the UK’s favourite nutritionally enriched milk drink”.

The 400g can – the size of a large mug, which costs £1.19 or so – was labelled in large type: “rich in calcium and vitamins”, “made with fresh milk” and “source of protein”.

The rear of the can shows 14 different vitamin and mineral enrichments, almost all of which the full can would provide more than ¾ of the recommended daily allowance – only calcium was less than that, at 72%.

The general labelling is clearly intended to reflect a generally healthy picture – “fresh milk”, “enriched” and “rich in calcium and vitamins”.

But all this is a marketing smokescreen.

This can contains 53.2 grams of sugar, that is, eight moderately heaped teaspoons – I’ve just measured it. If you have some digital scales in your kitchen, try it for yourself, and then just imagine dissolving that in a large mug of milk and drinking it. And that 53.2 grams is the only carbohydrate – there is no bulking-out fibre of any sort.

That means that 1/8 of the contents of the can is sugar, which is more than the total daily added sugar intake recommended by PHE for women (50g), and nearly the daily total for men (70g).

There are no warnings of any sort about sugar on the can, voluntary or otherwise.

Perhaps the most chilling part of the label is where it says in tiny type: "Not suitable for children under 3 years old, or pregnant/nursing mothers”.

The clear implication is that it is suitable for children over the age of three.

It is hardly surprising that obesity is a major issue across the UK. Clearly, industry voluntarism has not worked and seems not likely to work in the future.

Since voluntary action has failed, we all need to lobby the government to take regulatory action.

In the absence of that, we all need to work with all professionals concerned with the health of children and young people, especially those who work with children in poverty and children in care, to help them take action to reduce sugar intake. I include in this social workers who work with parents and foster carers, and in children’s homes; health workers; and teachers and school support staff. 

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