The obesity debate continues to capture the nation’s attention. But with new reports and arguments emerging all the time, often fronted with alarming headlines, the sheer volume of conflicting advice is creating confusion amongst consumers. What’s needed is information for consumers that is founded solely on science and sensible dialogue.
Obesity is a complex issue, and it has no single cause. Much of the recent coverage has, however, put sugar in the spotlight. We believe that singling out sugar in this way is misleading and confusing for consumers, particularly given how many factors are at play here.
The current scientific consensus is that it is the over-consumption of calories and our increasingly sedentary lifestyles that is causing the imbalance between energy (calories) in and energy (calories) out.
Our own research supports this correlation. We found that 54 per cent of UK adults don’t meet the basic physical activity guidelines recommended by the NHS. Coupled with this, consumers aren’t keeping track of the food or calories they consume on a daily basis. It's that is the real problem here.
Taking a look at sugar more closely, it’s interesting that it’s receiving such a large share of the blame when you consider that one gram provides us with just four calories, compared to one gram of fat providing nine calories, and the same volume of alcohol providing seven. While we’re not saying that these ingredients should shoulder the blame, it’s clear that what we’re eating and drinking must be looked at in the round.
Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, sugar consumption is actually declining in the UK. Government Family Food statistics have shown a reduction of almost 12 per cent in total sugars over the last decade, while at the same time obesity rates have increased by over 10 per cent in the past 20 years.
This is not a plea to people to eat more sugar, far from it. We are simply encouraging people to make sure they read food and drink nutrition labels carefully and arm themselves with the knowledge they need to understand what constitutes a healthy and balanced diet. Sugar can play a role as part of a healthy lifestyle.
Sugar has a range of properties, such as structure, flavour and preservative. When reducing or removing sugar from food, we must be careful not to compromise one of these properties, as product quality and food safety could be at risk.
We absolutely welcome a reduction in sugar in food and drink products, but only when there is an overall reduction in calories and food safety is maintained. The process of reformulation is not always easy and can actually increase the calorie content of a product if we’re not careful.
It’s also worth reminding ourselves that sugars cannot be hidden as consumers would sometimes be led to believe. By law all sugars are declared on a product’s nutritional label.
We do understand, however, that food labels on-pack can be confusing and are not always consistent. There is a critical role to be played in ensuring consumers really understand how to read a label.
We believe that more should be done here to arm consumers with the facts and figures, and are absolutely committed to playing our part in helping to tackle the obesity problem currently facing the UK.
Mark Carr is the CEO of AB Sugar