Sugar: It's Choice Restriction Week!

Posted on November 29, 2015

Action on Sugar, the campaign to restrict our intake of the sweet stuff, has declared this week as the first Sugar Awareness Week. Now, you may reasonably feel that you are fully aware of the existence of that white crystalline stuff that makes everything from fizzy drinks to cakes taste good, but apparently we've all been wallowing in ignorance.

According to AoS, and its media-friendly chum Jamie Oliver, sugar is basically poison. If we consume it in small amounts, we'll probably be fine, but if we consume a lot of it, it will make us fat, give us diabetes and send our children to an early grave. (Never mind that Jamie's recipes are often full of the stuff.) Moreover, the fact that there is so much sugar in our food is because the food industry cares so much about profit and so little about our health that it is quite reckless about feeding us death-inducing crap. Which, as a business model, is a little odd. Most industries don't set out to kill their own customer base.

The conclusion that Jamie, AoS and their friends in public health have leapt to is that we must have a clampdown on sugar. Sugary drinks must be taxed - with 20 per cent just the starting point. Government must put pressure on food companies to 'reformulate' their products so they contain less sugar. Jamie would go further and slap fines on any company that refused to do so and put a visual label of how many teaspoons of sugar a product contains on the pack.


Watch Rob Lyons on Sky News discussing the health committee report


As we've noted here before, sugar taxes suck. They're illiberal and regressive, hurting the least well-off more than the wealthy. While making something more expensive is likely to have some effect on the amount consumed, there is also precious little evidence that this small change in consumption would make any difference to health outcomes. We won't be much, if any, thinner and we won't live any longer.

If we want to slim down, we need to eat and drink less or become more active. It may be that for a minority of people, carbohydrate-rich foods like sugar encourage weight gain more than other foods. But if that is true, the campaign should really be called Action on Sugar, Bread, Pasta, Rice, Potatoes and Starchy Stuff in General. Not so catchy, huh?

And while Action on Sugar's parent organisation, Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) has trumpeted reductions in salt levels in foods in recent years, reducing sugar content is not as easy. Sugar not only adds sweetness but bulk and texture to products. Just imagine trying to make a cake with artificial sweetener. It would be very different indeed. If AoS succeeded, it would be by forcing companies to make our foods significantly less pleasant than before.

So what would be the alternative? The answer is choice. We need to be able to choose from a wide variety of foods that enable us to balance personal preferences against our assessment of the risk of eating a particular food. Fortunately, we have that already. For most sugary drinks, there's a low-sugar or sugar free version. If you love sugar, you can breakfast on Frosties cereal, but if you are not so keen, regular Cornflakes contain far less. There are many, many more examples.

The proposals by Action on Sugar and others are designed to take away choice. With their view of food manufacturers as cackling evil doers who love to see children die, and their view of consumers as little better than children who need 'experts' to look after them, campaigners believe the only way to solve the problems of obesity and chronic disease is to take away our freedom to choose. What is so astonishing is that these wannabe dictators are widely portrayed as the 'good guys'. They are anything but.

Update, Monday 30 November: In a move that will surprise precisely no one, the Commons Health Committee will publish a report today calling for... a 20% sugary drinks tax, further restrictions on food advertising and marketing, and further pressure to be applied to industry to reduce sugar content - regardless of what consumers want. 

Picture: CostaPPPR / Wikimedia Commons