The study suggests reducing sugar gradually to allow consumers’ taste preferences to adjust.
Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of UK campaign group Action on Sugar, and one of the authors of the study, said this could have a "profound impact" on cutting energy intake from soft drinks and therefore provide a long-term method of reducing obesity and diabetes.
Diabetes and obesity in the spotlight
According to figures from Diabetes UK, there are now 4m people with diabetes in the UK.
The incentive for the modelling study came from observing the UK’s salt reduction program, which has reduced the salt content of many foods by 40% over five years.
Data from the 2008 – 2012 National Diet and Nutrition Survey rolling program and British Soft Drinks Association annual reports were used to calculate sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption and its contribution to free sugars and energy intakes.
According to the study, a 40% reduction in free sugars in SSBs over five years would result in a 38 kcal average reduction in energy intake per day, by the fifth year.
This equates to a 1.2kg average reduction in body weight in adults, thus lowering the number of overweight adults by half a million, and obese adults by one million.
Over the next two decades this would prevent between 274,000 and 309,000 obesity-related type 2 diabetes cases, says the study.
When omitting fruit juices from the data, the average reduction in energy intake would be 31 kcal a day, and 0.96kg reduction in body weight.
Adjusting tastes and expectations
“A stepwise, gradual, unobtrusive reduction in free sugars added to sugar-sweetened beverages would potentially lead to an effective and sustainable reduction in energy intake, resulting in a substantial reduction in body weight and obesity in the long term,” say the authors in the study.
“This reduction will in turn reduce the obesity-related disease burden, including diabetes, and also lead to cost savings for health-care systems.”
The researchers’ model proposes a gradual reduction of 9.7% per year in added free sugars, aiming for a 40% reduction over five years.
“Human sugar taste preference adapts to a small and gradual reduction in sugar and it is unlikely that the proposed strategy will affect consumers’ choices, provided that the reduction is done gradually over five years,” the authors continue.
“A reduction in energy intake from sugar-sweetened beverages is unlikely to increase energy intake from other pathways. This is supported by the fact that reducing salt in processed food did not increase the use of table salt.
“A reduction of sugar added to sugar-sweetened beverages will have little effect on the cost and price of the product and therefore is unlikely to affect sales and profits for the soft drink industry, meaning it could be seen as an attractive prospect politically.”
The study does acknowledge the possibility of replacing sugary sweeteners with non-caloric sweeteners, but says there is not enough evidence that this would be an effective solution.
It also references the option of taxing SSBs, which can be found in countries including Mexico, France, and several US states. It says that its proposed strategy is compatible with tax strategies, and the effect on calorie intake could be even greater if both policies are implemented together.
Source: The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology. Published online January 6, 2016 http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/ S2213-8587(15)00477-5
Title: ‘Gradual reduction of sugar in soft drinks without substitution as a strategy to reduce overweight, obesity, and type 2 diabetes: a modelling study’
Authors: Y. Ma, F.J. He, Y. Yin, K. M. Hashem, G. A. MacGregor.