Medical leaders are calling for the government to back public health recommendations on reducing the sugar content in foods and the promotion of sugary products.
The Public Health England review – Sugar reduction: the evidence for action – concludes that a range of factors is contributing to an increase in sugar consumption and thus a broad range of measures is needed in response.
The action required to reduce sugar consumption levels includes:
– Lowering th volume and number of price promotions in retail and restaurants
– Limiting the marketing and advertising of high sugar products to children
– Cutting the sugar content in and portion size of everyday food and drink products
The review also suggests consideration of a price increase, through a tax or a levy, as a means of reducing sugar intake, though the report says this is likely to be less effective than the three measures set out above.
Commenting on the review, RCP president Professor Jane Dacre said: “As Public Health England’s evidence review highlights, consuming too much sugar can lead to people becoming overweight, which can cause serious health problems ranging from diabetes to cancer.
“With more than 60% of adults and 20% of reception-aged children in England already overweight or obese, it is vital that we all take concerted action to tackle this growing problem. This evidence only strengthens the case for government, regulators, and food and drinks manufactures and retailers, to introduce evidence-based action that will not only help us all to live healthier lives, but as PHE highlights, could also save the NHS £500 million per year.”
Other conclusions from the review include setting a clear definition of high sugar foods; adopting the government buying standards for foods and catering services; delivering accredited training on diet and health to all who work in catering, fitness and leisure sectors; and continuing to raise awareness of practical steps to reduce sugar consumption.
Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England (PHE), said: “There is no silver bullet solution to the nation’s bad sugar habit. A broad and balanced approach is our best chance of reducing sugar consumption to healthier levels and to see fewer people suffering the consequences of too much sugar in the diet.
“We’ve shared out findings with the Government and are working with them on its childhood obesity strategy.”
The review says children and young people consume three times the recommended amount of sugar on average, with adults consuming more than double. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recently recommended that sugar makes up no more than 5% of daily calorie intake: 30g or 7 cubes of sugar per day.
The Government adopted the advice as official dietary advice in July this year.
In England, almost two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese; a tenth of 4 to 5 year olds and almost a fifth of 10 to 11 year olds are obese. Treating obesity and its consequences alone currently costs the NHS £5.1 billion every year.
The review suggests that if the nation dropped its sugar intake to recommended levels within 10 years, over 4,000 early deaths and over 200,000 cases of tooth decay would be avoided and the burden of diseases associated with obesity such as diabetes would be reduced, saving the NHS around £480 million every year.
Marketing in all its many forms consistently influences food preference, choice and purchasing in children and adults. End of aisle displays, for example, leads to a 50% increase in purchases of fizzy drinks.
Food promotions are more widespread in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, accounting for around 40% of all domestic food and drink spending. This increases the size of families shopping baskets by a fifth and means they are taking home 6% more sugar.
A structured sugar reformulation programme could lead to a significant reduction in sugar consumption. The evidence showed if the sugar content of soft drinks was reduced by half, the sugar consumption of children under 10 and adults over 19 would decrease by 5g and for those in between, 11g.
Increasing the price of high sugar food and drink, through taxation or a levy, is likely to reduce purchases of these products, at least in the short term.
Professor Sheila Hollins, BMA board of science chair, commented: “Doctors are increasingly concerned about the impact of poor diet, which is responsible for up to 70,000 deaths a year, and has the greatest impact on the NHS budget, costing £6bn annually.
“We urge the Government to give real and urgent consideration to Public Health England’s recommendations including restricting the marketing of high-sugar products, reducing promotions of sugary food and drink, and introducing a 10-20 per cent sugar tax.
“While sugar-sweetened drinks are very high in calories they are of limited nutritional value and when people in the UK are already consuming far too much sugar, we are increasingly concerned about how they contribute towards conditions like diabetes.
“It is concerning that a decision was made to delay publication at the same time as the BMA published its own report into the impact of sugar on children and young people, which included calls for a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks alongside action to restrict the pervasive marketing strategies used by the food and drink industry. It is vital that the government takes on board the concerns already raised by doctors, and now echoed by Public Health England.”