Public Enemy No.1

21/10/2015 - 07:24
The long-awaited Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition’s report on sugar has framed the public health debate that is considering how the UK must cut consumption. David Foad reports.

The Scientific Advisory Committee (SACN) has passed its final recommendations to the government relating to sugar – and also fibre and wholegrains – as part of its ‘Carbohydrates and Health’ report.

In it, SACN has advised the government to radically reduce the intake recommendation of free sugars and to increase the recommended intake of fibre in the population’s diet.

The report says that high levels of sugar consumption are associated with a greater risk of tooth decay and represent a greater risk of high energy intake.

It adds that drinking high-sugar beverages results in weight gain and increases in BMI in teenagers and children, and too many high-sugar beverages increase the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

The consumption of free sugars should account for no more than 5% of daily dietary energy intake, and it recommends that the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, such as fizzy drinks, soft drinks and squash, should be minimised for children and adults.

The report uses the term ‘free sugars’ to replace the terms ‘non-milk extrinsic sugars’ (NMES) and ‘added sugars’.

The SACN also looked at the amount of carbohydrates and fibre being consumed, and recommended that starchy carbohydrates, wholegrain where possible, should form 50% of daily calorie intake.

The broad message of the report has been welcomed by dietitians and catering operators.

Dr Fiona McCullough, chair of the British Dietetic Association, says: “We have known for a number of years, and further evidence presented, shows that as a nation, we are consuming too much sugar.

“The time is now right to address this issue head on, and improve the nation’s health in the long and short term. I also welcome the need to increase fibre in the nation’s diet.

“Let’s make no mistake that the recommendations sitting on the desk of the government will be challenging to deliver, but I can assure you that dietitians around the UK are up for this challenge,” McCullough continues.

“Indeed, the profession has been at the forefront of many of the issues raised, such as adopting a policy in favour of taxing sugary fizzy drinks two years ago.”

“The experts have presented credible evidence, and the ball is now firmly in the government’s court to seize this opportunity to improve the nation’s health.

“While we all have a personal role to play in our individual health and the health of our families, we do need political will and momentum behind this.”

Carl Morris, service provider Elior’s director of marketing and corporate communications, acknowledged the extent of the problem and the role to be played by contractors.

“Currently, the average adult consumes more than twice SACN’s recommended maximum free sugars intake and just over half of the recommended fibre intake.

“To meet these new recommendations will require a substantial change in dietary habits for most people, and involve support and advice from a range of stakeholders.

“Even with this, we believe it will be extremely challenging for the majority of the population to come close to meeting these recommendations on a daily basis.

“However, we do acknowledge that a huge shift in eating habits is necessary for us to address the UK obesity problem.

“And we recognise that as a caterer, we have an important role to play, and will continue to help support our own colleagues and customers to meet healthy eating recommendations.

“We provide nutrition information for many of the foods we serve, which, along with other supportive information, helps enable consumers to make informed choices about the food they eat,” Morris says.

“In addition to this, ‘You & Life’ – our philosophy on food, nutrition and well-being – has an extensive education, training and practical application for our staff and customers.

“The logo is used to highlight recipes and dishes that meet strict nutritional criteria. These criteria include specific references to the non-use of free-sugars-containing ingredients, and offering higher-fibre alternatives in foodservice areas.”

Morris also points out the way nutrition information is provided may need to change.

“Although not a legal requirement for foods served ‘loose’, if nutrition information is provided, it must meet specific EU regulations.

“This means that although the SACN recommendation relates to free sugars, current nutrition information provided only shows total sugars, making it difficult for consumers to quantify their intake of free sugars.

“We are now considering how we can communicate the amount of free sugars to our customers.

“In addition, the required nutritional labelling formats for non-pre-packed foods do not permit the display of fibre information, thus making it difficult for consumers to know how much fibre they are eating from foods that are not pre-packed.

“Again, we will review how we can help our customers understand how the foods they eat at our sites contribute to fibre intake.

“On a larger scale, we need the support and collaboration of the wider food industry to deliver innovative food solutions to help achieve these recommendations.

“And we call for a review in current policy covering how non pre-packed food is labelled. This will ensure the required information is provided in a standardised form to meet the recommendations.

“In summary, to meet these requirements, we are going to require a huge shift in thinking and eating, and big changes are called for in the current provision of information.”

The responsibility of caterers to help consumers is something that global services provider Compass is looking at closely.

Nicky Martin, head of nutrition for Compass Group UK and Ireland, says: “As a business, we are of course aware of the implications of consuming too much sugar, and are working to educate consumers and improve the food and recipes we serve across our estate.

“We are finding that more consumers want us to make the decisions for them, to make their favourite foods healthier.

“Recent research shows that almost 70% of people are saying they want us to make products healthier. However, what’s also clear is that they want great-tasting food and drink, plus a choice on what they are consuming.

“Our 2020 Health and Well-being strategy outlines a number of forward-thinking pledges that demonstrate Compass’s dedication to help feed change and fight obesity.

“These pledges have been divided into three key areas – healthier food, healthier lives and healthier futures. We work with our chefs, colleagues and suppliers to ensure that there are not unnecessary high levels of sugars in any of the food that we serve.

“We have also committed to significantly reduce added-sugar drinks from our shelves.

“We are actively taking steps to reduce sugar in the food we serve, helping customers to make healthier choices.

“And we want to take our consumers on a journey with us, getting them used to the lower levels of sugars in our food and drinks, for their own health and well-being.”

Among specific foodstuffs, the SACN report singles out soft drinks as a key target, suggesting ‘high-sugar beverages’ lead not only to weight gain and heightened BMI in teenagers and children, but that overconsumption increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

This followed a call earlier this summer from the British Medical Association (BMA) for a 20% tax on soft drinks to reduce consumption by driving up the cost as well as generating revenue that could be used to help treat the consequences of obesity, including type 2 diabetes.

But Gavin Partington of the British Soft Drinks Association, the national umbrella group representing the collective interests of producers and manufacturers, said such proposals would achieve little in practice and that the industry had already taken action to cut sugar in its products.

“Some people do need to reduce their sugar intake and eat a more balanced diet, but today’s recommendations make little sense and will further confuse people.

“Our industry is taking action to help and has successfully provided the choice that consumers need by developing a wide range of low and no-sugar drinks.

“Manufacturers have reduced sugar intake from all soft drinks by more than 8% since 2012.

“Our ongoing work will do more to reduce sugar intake than the setting of unrealistic targets that do not consider overall diet and lifestyle.

“The fact is, there is no difference between the sugar in soft drinks and the sugar in other types of food and drink.

“It is baffling that soft drinks have been singled out and the industry’s work to reduce the nation’s sugar intake ignored.”

He referred to a Kantar Worldpanel report earlier this year that said calories in soft drinks had been cut by 7.3% and sugar reduced by 8.3% since 2012.

And he pointed out that according to government ‘National Diet and Nutrition Survey’ data published in 2014, soft drinks account for just 3% of calories in the average UK diet.

He also questioned the effectiveness of a 20% soft drinks tax in the UK in reducing calorie intakes.

“Evidence from other countries has shown this type of tax does not work,” he says.

“In fact, the soft drinks tax in Mexico has reduced average calorie intake by just six calories per person per day, and the study referred to by the BMA in this report suggests a 20% tax here would reduce calorie intake by a mere four calories per day.

“By contrast, the efforts by soft drinks companies, including product reformulation, smaller pack sizes and increased promotion of low and no-calorie drinks, have led to a 7% reduction in calories from soft drinks in the past three years.

“The soft drinks industry recognises it has a role to play in supporting public health objectives, and welcomes steps to encourage a balanced diet and active lifestyle, but targeting single ingredients or products is misguided and unlikely to prove effective.”

The need to tackle the high levels of sugar in the diets of young people is a concern for Jo Nicholas, Children’s Food Trust nutritionist and head of evaluation.

“Excess sugar is one of the biggest threats to children’s nutrition – at the moment, they’re having two to three times more sugar than SACN is now recommending,” she says.

“Getting children and teenagers eating and drinking far less sugar to meet these new targets will be an enormous task, and we will need to do much more to help parents make this happen.

“There are some good foundations in place: national guidelines on food in childcare are getting children into healthier habits from a very young age, limiting the amount of sugar they eat when they’re at nursery, pre-school or with their childminder.

“And national school food standards have drastically reduced sugar levels in school meals – the average secondary school lunch now contains around a third less sugar at lunchtime than it did than a decade ago.

“But in other places where we shop and eat, and for parents at home, it can be tough to navigate the claims food manufacturers and retailers make about food and drinks they market for children.

“Some products say they’re ‘sugar-free’ but they’re full of sweeteners; others say ‘no added sugar’ and are promoted as healthy options for kids but, in reality, they still contain a lot of sugar.

“It’s a part of our food culture that feels specifically designed to bamboozle.

“Parents really want better information about the food they choose for their children, and that shouldn’t mean having to study detailed nutritional information on packets.

“That’s why we think food labels need to be even clearer and more consistent, particularly on products aimed at children.

“We’d like to see colour-coded nutrition labelling on all products, clear information about what makes a portion size for a child, and an end to adverts for sugary food and drinks during family TV shows and online.”

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