The food and beverage sector is hitting back against new campaigns aimed at reducing sugar consumption, prompting critics to compare the industry’s position to that of tobacco companies decades ago.
In Australia, three major health organisations want a sugar tax on all sweetened beverages – not just soft drinks, but also products like flavoured milk and sports drinks – to limit consumption.
Meanwhile, in Britain a campaign called Action on Sugar has just been launched, hoping to reverse that country’s obesity epidemic by targeting the “huge and unnecessary amounts of sugar that are currently being added to our food and soft drinks”.
The campaign’s expert advisors include heavyweights from the scientific and medical community.
And last month leaked draft guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) suggested the organisation is considering halving the recommended daily intake of sugar from ten teaspoons to five.
Its latest “global strategy on diet” also says an unhealthy diet is a major risk factor for chronic disease and recommends reducing sugar intake to help prevent conditions like type 2 diabetes and dental problems.
Australia’s Food and Grocery Council, however, says there is nothing wrong with sugar.
The council’s deputy chief executive, Geoffrey Annison, says scientific evidence, including data from WHO, shows that sugar is not related to obesity.
“There’s no demonstration that sugar of itself is particularly obesogenic or related to any health outcomes,” he said.
Professor Greg Johnson from Diabetes Australia says the Food and Grocery Council argument is eerily familiar.
“These are the sorts of responses that we saw out of the tobacco industry decades ago, when we first started hearing from the College of Surgeons in the United States and leading clinicians and researchers around the problems of tobacco and ill health,” he said.
“So it’s not a surprise to hear this. But all we can say is: look at the evidence that’s coming out and being talked about by many independent, reputable experts and organisations around the world.”
Diabetes Australia calls for sugar tax on sweetened drinks
Professor Johnson says the UK’s Action on Sugar campaign has the right idea.
Diabetes Australia is calling for a sugar tax on sweetened drinks, as just one of a series of measures to combat Australia’s rising obesity rates and the rise in diabetes.
“Australia’s in the top 10 countries for the per capita consumption of these products,” he said.
“From 2007 we know that one in two, nearly 50 per cent of all Australian children consume sugar-sweetened beverages every day. Every day.
“There is no dietary need to have sugar-sweetened beverages. And the other part of it is: they’re particularly associated with weight gain.”
The Food and Grocery Council says the industry is already responding by putting out low-calorie products.
Dr Annison claims not only is there no direct correlation between sugar consumption and obesity but Australia’s sugar consumption is dropping.
“There’s absoutely no doubt that we’re consuming less sugar than before,” he said.
“For example, in 1938 they were consuming about 55 kilograms per person, and it went down to 42 kg per person by 2011.”