EU sugar reform will damage public health, warn researchers

By Niamh Michail contact

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EU sugar reform will damage public health, warn researchers

Related tags: Fructose corn syrup, High fructose corn, Sugar, High-fructose corn syrup, Fructose

The EU sugar reform will harm public health by flooding the market with cheap sugar and tempting manufacturers to reformulate – an agricultural policy that takes into account public health is needed, say researchers.

Experts have already said the EU sugar reform will harm sugar cane growers​ in developing economies around the world – but an analysis published in the British Medical Journal​ now claims that the planned liberalisation will also impact on Europeans' health.

The authors write: “The structuring and sequencing of the reforms (…) were designed to benefit industry rather than public health. There has been no pause to consider the broader health implications of sugar reform, even though from the outset the European Commission forecast that sugar consumption would increase as a result.”

A history of protectionism

Benefitting from import tariffs, minimum price guarantees, production quotas and export subsidies as well as a 5% cap on the production of isoglucose (high fructose corn syrup), sugar has been one of the most protected EU commodities, giving a huge artificial boost to the European sugar industry –  five European countries feature in the top ten global sugar industry players.

But with the sugar reforms heralding the almost full liberalisation of the market in 2017, the only way for the European sugar industry to remain profitable is by increasing production, which will flood the market with cheap sugar.

According to the European Commission’s own predictions, which have largely been borne out according to Aguirre et al., production of isoglucose will treble and overall sugar production will increase by 15%.

Some manufacturers are already preparing to up their output – earlier this year French company Tereos bought Napier Brown "in anticipation of the end of the EU Sugar Regime"​ and intends to up sugar production by 20% once the quotas are abolished.

The road to reformulation?

“Lowering the cost of sugars to food processors will make it more economically viable to incorporate sugars into processed foods as an easy, inexpensive means of increasing palatability, potentially resulting in higher sugar content in foods that already contain sugars. Cheaper processed food items, marketed on price rather than quality, may be most liable to reformulation to incorporate more sugars."

As cheap, processed foods are consumed more often by people in lower socioeconomic groups, health inequalities would increase, write the authors.

They also suggest it will result in an increase in industry use of isoglucose. Although there are no negative health impacts associated with this ingredient – despite being the subject of health scares, numerous studies and health authorities have declared it to be safe – its ease of use for industry with benefits in stability, texture, pourability and consistency, could increase its usage. They point to the USA as an indicator of what may happen.

“The United States shows the potential effect of this change. The US government declared high fructose corn syrup to be “generally recognized as safe” in 1983, removing any restraint on its use. Following this, sugary drink manufacturers replaced sucrose with cheaper high fructose corn syrup. ​In the 30 years since, there has been a long term decline in the price of carbonated soft drinks relative to food. By contrast in the UK, where sucrose remained the predominant sweetener, the price of soft drinks relative to food has risen.”

Align agriculture and health policies - a sweet solution?

More health-focused policies are needed say the authors, pointing to the North Karelia project in Finland where a switch from dairy to fruit and rapeseed oil production saw reduced rates of cardiovascular disease, or Poland’s removal of animal fat and dairy subsidies which cut coronary heart disease.

Mandatory reformulation targets and robust systems for monitoring compliance may be necessary, they write. 

Data collected by Action on Sugar revealed massive differences in sugar levels for the same products. The association reviewed 274 sugar-sweetened soft drinks produced across the world and found that a 330 ml can of Fanta in the USA contains 41 g of sugar while in Germany it is 30 g and in the UK 23 g. A can of Sprite in the US has 38 g but 19 g in Poland and Austria.

Source: British Medical Journal

First published online 27 October 2015,   http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h5085 

“Liberalising agricultural policy for sugar in Europe risks damaging public health”

Authors:Emilie K Aguirre, Oliver T Mytton, Pablo Monsivais

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