The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) is due to report this week on how much sugar we should all be eating - and it's likely it will recommend that we slash the current target by half. At present, it recommends that not more than 10% of our calories should come from sugar - that figure is likely to drop to 5%, a level already advocated by the World Health Organization.
Why the sudden focus on sugar, when fat has always been Public Enemy Number One? Well, this doesn't mean that we can all eat deep-fried fat balls with abandon - but we are increasingly recognising that refined sugar plays a major part in our spiralling weight, and with it the increased risks of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, osteoarthritis and even cancer.
In case you've been living on a desert island for the last decade, let me give you some shocking figures. One in four UK adults are now obese, while 67.1% of men and 57.2% of women are over their 'ideal' weight range (67.1% of men and 57.2% of women). Levels of obesity in England have increased from 15% to 25% in just 20 years, and they're still rising. Levels in Scotland are higher still at about 28%, while they're stable at about 22% in Northern Ireland and 22% but rising in Wales. It's estimated that 70,000 premature deaths a year are down to poor diet.
This isn't a problem exclusive to the UK by any means - in fact, it's even worse in the USA. In the US, 34.9% of adults are obese, with rates between 30% and 35% in 17 states and over 35% in the 'worst offenders', Mississippi and West Virginia, in 2013. No US state has an incidence of obesity below 20%.
But the issue is particularly acute among our young people - the adults and type 2 diabetes sufferers of the future. While the National Diet and Nutrition survey shows that even under-4s get more than 10% of their calories from added sugar, children aged 4-10 get 14.6% and those aged 11-18 get 15.6%. In Mexico and France, a tax on sugary drinks may have dropped consumption, and the British Medical Association is calling for the same tax in the UK. They want a 20% tax on all sugared drinks - raising the price of a 60p bottle to 72p and a large £1.80 bottle to £2.16.
But Public Health England may or may not be getting cold feet. They certainly acknowledge it's a problem - they were due to report on ways to water down our love affair with sugar this week - the publication of a plan of 23 possible sugar reduction policies has just been delayed.
Among the plans they were examining are:
- Curbs on 'supersize' fizzy drinks in fast food outlets and cinemas
- Banning sweets from supermarket checkouts in an attempt to limit 'pester power' by kids
- Tighter advertising controls
- Tighter regulations on sale of unhealthy foods from public buildings (leisure centres, hospitals etc)
- Working with food manufacturing companies to reduce sugar content
- Clearer food labelling.
So has the Department of Health buckled under pressure from the food industry? Time will tell - apparently the Public Health England report hasn't been cancelled, just postponed. But doctors are certainly standing firm - sugar may not be our only problem, but it's certainly a major player.
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