How businesses can help curb obesity this Sugar Awareness Week

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This sugar awareness week, while we should think twice about putting sugar in our tea and coffee or having that second soft drink in a day, we must also put pressure on suppliers and manufacturers to act responsibly and present us with products that help us reduce our calories and of course tooth decay.

By Isabelle Szmigin, Professor of Marketing at Birmingham Business School

When I was a child, it was normal to have a couple of teaspoons of sugar in our tea until the dentist told my mother that this created a sugar syrup in the mouth that encouraged tooth decay. In those days we were concerned with dental cavities but most mum’s didn’t have to worry about their children being obese. The world has changed and just this month the Lancet reported that in the UK one in 10 young people aged 5 to 19 are obese. While debates will continue over energy imbalance (i.e. taking in more energy through food than we use through activity) one of the most dangerous areas for consuming too many calories too easily is sweetened food and especially soft drinks.

The food environment has changed dramatically since I was a child. Probably the most dangerous aspect of this is the so-called ‘hyperpalatable’ foods which have been engineered in such a way that their reward properties surpass those of traditional ‘sweet’ foods such as fruit. These foods have a particular combination of fat and sugar that humans find irresistible and which lead to eating more than they might have planned; American cheesecake for example.

While I continually hear producers and retailers alike claim that they are giving us choice and that we would not like that choice taken away, we do need to recognise that companies can be and often are complicit in ensuring that sugar remains in food. Similarly newspapers constantly complain about the nanny state when regulations or levies are introduced but the reality is somewhat different. The fact is that self-control may be impeded by our limited ability to resist food. These include both cognitive and physical limitations which include the secretion of dopamine, which motivates desire when food is seen; innate preferences for sweet tastes, a newborn will drink more sweetened solutions than plain water and that we are hard-wired to consume more in times of abundance. We also find it very difficult to judge calorie content.

That is why I for one welcome the soft drinks industry levy (often wrongly referred to as the sugar tax) to be introduced in 2018 as it takes the onus away from the consumer and places it back with the producers. The levy will charge soft drinks companies whose products contain sugar content of five grams or more per 100 millilitres. This is about 5% sugar content. Drinks with high milk content will not be charged as the nutrients are considered crucial for a healthy diet. So importantly, it is up to the companies whether or not they pass on the levy to consumers. The idea here is that rather than individual consumers always having to think about what they are eating and drinking, there will be pressure on producers to reformulate to reduce the sugar content. Evidence shows that with such a push they will reformulate, as in the case of salt where intake has been reduced by 15% in the last 10 years largely through reduction of salt in food products. Already companies such as Robinsons and the Co-Operative have taken steps to begin reformulation of drinks. Of course if companies decide to pass on the levy to consumers we may see a reduction in consumption too. Despite the very strong sugar lobby in the US, Berkeley in California introduced a high levy of 10% on soft drinks in 2015 and they have seen a 10% cut in sales and an increase in water consumption.

This sugar awareness week, while we should think twice about putting sugar in our tea and coffee or having that second soft drink in a day, we must also put pressure on suppliers and manufacturers to act responsibly and present us with products that help us reduce our calories and of course tooth decay.


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