A war on sugar.
We are seeing more and more heated discussions flare up on the TV and angry sounding articles in newspapers that focus in on how some products have so much sugar in them that they are likely to provoke diabetes in some of us and obesity in anybody.
Are we on the verge of seeing a vociferous debate?
I saw an argument on TV where a doctor said there should be a tax on sugar-laden fizzy drinks whilst a drinks manufacturer challenged the logic. Both argued plausible points but they locked horns and made no progress.
Now we see a concerted campaign called Action On Sugar at actiononsalt.org.uk which promises to up the ante considerably.
Get to the root cause of too much sugar.
Arguments focus on what is happening, not why it is happening. If you look at why it happens you’ll get to the solution to stop it.
First a question about the motives for putting too much sugar into food.
The food industry in the UK comes under a lot of fire for various reasons and it is easy to vilify the business as some sort of pariah out to “kill the customer” with its evil money making ways.
But can you imagine the sales director of a food company arriving home at the end of the week and having fun with the kids only to go back on Monday and plot how to harm them? When he meets his diabetic Aunt does he rub his hands with glee at the success of his wicked business plan?
Let’s face it, it is hard to believe there is an evil plan within the food industry to make the population unhealthy. They are just like the rest of us. In fact they are us. There is no “them and us”. It is simplistic and divisive to believe there is.
So why do they do it? Why do they put so much sugar into our food?
My guess is that sugar is a cheap ingredient. It is the low price of sugar compared with other ingredients that makes economically compelling ingredient for the food industry. Food products are compared with one another by weight and sugar is a heavy ingredient that often costs less the others. It is heavier than water for example.
I decided on that idea a long time ago when I noticed that the percentage of sugar in a cheap own-brand packet of digestive biscuits was much higher than in a packet of McVities. I concluded that they used more sugar to get the price of a 200g packet down. I would say the challenge is to get as much sugar into the biscuit without making it too sweet.
Some commentators say that the reason the food industry adds too much sugar is because sugar is addictive and that after the first rush of sugar the body produces a lot on insulin that causes the blood sugar to drop and make us crave more. Or something like that!
It would be quite easy for the food industry to challenge that and run circles around the politicians who would need to be convinced if changes are to be made.
There might be something in the addiction theory but it pales into insignificance when placed against the benefit that sugar gives for getting the price of food down.
The challenge for food producers to make the price of their products lower than their competitors is enormous. That is what makes them tick. That is why they feel obliged to add so much sugar. You might call them evil for having the profit motive but they might see it as a necessity for business survival. Either way, there is no evil agenda to make us sick. The decision to add more sugar is made in the accounts department.
If this is true then more sugar goes into cheaper foods and those on the tightest budget get the most harmful diet.
The sugar solution.
If we have too much sugar in our food it is because sugar is too cheap. If less harmful ingredients were cheaper then they would be used in larger quantites in place of sugar. The answer is to raise the cost of sugar to the food industry. Make sugar expensive enough to remove the financial incentive to include so much of it. The most obvious way to do that is to tax sugar. Can you think of other ways?
The whole of the food industry would rise to the challenge of keeping the price of their products cheap by using less sugar and we would all benefit. Even the sales director’s kids and let’s not forget his diabetic Aunty. He’d avoid being labelled a villain as well.
We would get used to food not being over-sweet, just as we have become accustomed to it being too sweet now. Britain is a sweet-tooth country. Many years a ago as a student I earned a few bob by repeat testing a Mars bar vending machine. The boss said we could keep the Mars bars afterwards but warned us they weren’t as sweet as those we were used to because that batch was made for the Dutch market.
So far we have seen debates about targeting fizzy drinks in order to chip away at the problem. That is only scratching the surface. Business responds to finance. Business rebels against criticism from pressure groups.
Taxation is partly about raising money and partly about social engineering. A cross the board approach will have widespread benefits. Singling out specific offenders as being worse than others is a joke and a distraction that will be like a festering sore for years. It is the worst approach.
It would be far better for pressure groups to campaign for a general Sugar Tax at the outset rather than try to pick arguments with particular products. A general sugar tax is probably more practical than a piecewise approach.
If sugar is the new tabacco then arguing with the “culprits” won’t make a difference. It’s politicians who will ultimately help us all.
Chris Jones. 19 Jan 2014