The commentary in leading scientific journal Nature discusses the global burden of chronic disease related to sugar consumption, and suggests the need to regulate certain dietary items. The authors of the commentary draw particular parallels between the health effects of sugar and that of alcohol and tobacco – arguing that ‘toxic’ sugar should be regulated in a similar manner.
Led by Professor Robert Lustig from the University of California, San Francisco, the commentators advocate introducing a tax on processed foods with added sugar, limiting sales during school hours and placing age limits on purchase. In addition, Lustig comments that sugar is more dangerous to health than saturated fat and salt – which the commentary refers to as dietary “bogeymen”.
They wrote: “Evolutionarily, sugar was available to our ancestors as fruit for only a few months a year (at harvest time), or as honey, which was guarded by bees. But in recent years, sugar has been added to nearly all processed foods, limiting consumer choice. Nature made sugar hard to get; man made it easy.”
UK trade group the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said "demonising" food was unhelpful when it came to health policy: “The causes of these diseases are multi-factorial and demonising food components does not help consumers to build a realistic approach to their diet,” said Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the FDF.
Providing perspective on the Nature commentary for FoodNavigator, Professor Jack Winkler, formerly of the Nutrition Policy Unit at London Metropolitan University, said whilst it is “significant ... that Nature chooses to give a prominent place to such an article,” he argued that the article itself is “the standard stuff by medics who are naive about policy.”
Increased regulation and taxation on products containing sugars and other ingredients linked with declines in public health – such as salt and certain fats – have been proposed many times before, with some European countries and US states brining in so called ‘sin taxes’ in recent times.
In the last year legislators across Europe have began to put additional taxes on foods thought to be unhealthy in an effort to combat rising obesity levels.
Authorities in Denmark, Hungary, Finland, and France have already introduced a tax on such items, whilst Belgium, Ireland, Romania and Sweden are said to be actively considering a levy.
However many food and beverage firms oppose the taxes, arguing that it is unfair and stigmatises products.
The UK NHS choices service said whilst it is generally accepted that added sugar or excessive sugar consumption is bad for health, “to what extent sugar is directly to blame for the rise in chronic disease and how much is due to other dietary components, such as saturated fat and salt, is open to debate.”
Professor Winkler told this publication that Lugstig and his colleagues “are recommending a policy that they know will be ineffective” – noting that the commentary is narrow in diagnosis of the problem and proposes sugar regulations that it later admits will not work.
“They are like so many before them, good – if narrow – on identifying a problem, but poor on ideas about how to solve it,” argued Winkler.
“Worse even. They make sugar taxation their number one policy recommendation, before admitting at the end that it would not work,” he said.
The retired professor of nutrition policy added that the second proposed policy – to restrict the sales of sugary foods and drinks in schools – will not work either.
“Schoolchildren will simply buy what they want from shops on their way to school or on the way home,” he said, citing research that shows independent food purchasing by children begins at around age nine.
Also speaking with FoodNavigator, Professor Andrew Renwick, University of Southampton, said the commentary in Nature “considerably overstates certain aspects” of the science “and is naive in others – especially in comparisons with alcohol.”
However the former scientific advisor for the International Sweetener Association added that he was uncertain whether sugars would receive regulatory approval in the modern day environment.
“If it were to be introduced as a new ingredient today I doubt whether it would receive regulatory approval,” he said.
“For a start, it would be impossible to perform the high-dose safety tests (at more than 100-fold the human intake) that are the basis for the approval of low-calorie sweeteners,” he argued.