Is Sugar Really so Bad for My Health?

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Recent events suggest that the UK’s heading towards a sugar tax – although that’s far from certain. How much we should demonise sugar is a matter of debate, and whether a sugar tax would be an effective way to reduce the problems associated with consuming too much sugar is even more contentious.

Our view? Sugar isn’t inherently harmful like cigarettes and doesn’t deserve to be taxed – especially when there’s little evidence it would work. But consumption needs to come down and while the industry should take the lead, everyone needs to change their attitude to it.

But don’t just take our word for it – here are four more perspectives.

The Campaigning Cardiologist

Doctor and researcher Dr Aseem Malhotra co-founded the campaign group Action on Sugar

Sugar isn’t so much bad for you as completely unnecessary. Your body simply has no biological need for added sugar in food. And the harms it does are numerous – it damages tooth enamel, for example, and it undoubtedly contributes to chronic disease. People who get 25% of their calories from sugar are three times more likely to have heart disease than people who get 10% of them. There’s evidence that just one sugary drink a day significantly increases the risk of diabetes.

I’d like food labels to state sugar content in teaspoons to make the message hit home. I advise my patients to avoid anything labelled “heart healthy” or “low fat”, which tend to be high in sugar, and I’m appalled that gyms and hospitals sell sugary drinks. But a sugar tax would be hugely effective. Calculations suggest a 20% levy would reduce consumption by 15%, which would prevent at least 180,000 cases of obesity and raise £275 million – which should be ringfenced to treat related problems.

The argument that it punishes the people who can least afford it is bogus. You’re literally preventing them being poisoned. And it’s not like there’s no alternative – they can drink water.

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The Food Industry Spokesman

Tim Rycroft is corporate affairs director of Food and Drink Federation, a UK industry body that represents food and drink manufacturers

In 2015, the most comprehensive scientific review of sugar ever carried out confirmed that sugars can be enjoyed safely as part of a varied diet. The report made clear that excess sugars – leading to overconsumption of calories – are linked to obesity and associated diseases, rather than sugars specifically.

Although sugar consumption in the UK has been decreasing for years it is still higher than recommended. This is also true for saturated fat and salt, which is why the focus on a single nutrient, sugar, in the health debate is so unhelpful.

Taxing foods or drinks, where it’s been tried, hasn’t effected lasting change. Continuing recipe reformulation and pack size reductions led by the industry, together with a greater emphasis on nutrition information and practical food skills, will improve diets in a way that discriminatory taxes simply will not.

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The Public Health Official

Dr Alison Tedstone is director of diet and obesity at Public Health England, which published Sugar Reduction: The Evidence For Action

The majority of people in the UK eat too much sugar. And unlike other foods, getting calories from sugar doesn’t mean we’ll reduce them elsewhere in our diet. We’ll just eat more.

One of the biggest reasons for this is retail promotion. We buy more promoted food – 40% of the total – than any other country in Europe, and it encourages us to buy more food overall. Promotions should be reduced, and PHE would also like to see less marketing to children and a reduction of sugar levels in food. Those are the three things we think would be most successful in reducing sugar consumption.

There’s some evidence that a tax on sugary drinks could be effective, but less so than these strategies. The best tactic? Considering the average British child drinks almost the equivalent of a can of high-sugar drink a day, parents should get them to swap it for a sugar-free or no-added-sugar option or water. That would reduce sugar consumption by 30%.

RECOMMENDED: Fat loss plan that cuts out refined sugar

The Activist GP

Dr Ian Campbell is a prominent campaigner for the prevention and treatment of obesity and founded the National Obesity Forum

Excess sugar in our diet has undoubtedly contributed to the obesity epidemic we face, but I don’t believe a tax on sugary drinks will work. It was tried in Denmark, where it failed and was withdrawn within a year. It had some success in Mexico, but the UK isn’t Mexico – their cultural approach to “soda” isn’t remotely like ours and their obesity problem is much worse.

A model of what would happen if we introduced a 20% sugary drinks tax in the UK was published in the BMJ in 2014. This postulated that it would reduce British teenagers’ sugar intake by… four calories a day. That doesn’t read like success to me. It also said 100,000 fewer people would be clinically obese – but they’d still be overweight and at risk of weight-related disease. It would also penalise the poorest in society for very little gain.

Of course people should reduce consumption of unnecessary sugars. And this isn’t complicated: avoid processed food, don’t add sugar to tea and coffee, and keep chocolates, sweets and sugary drinks as an occasional treat, not an everyday staple.

The Reader

Chris Miller
Subeditor and contributor

As Coach’s subeditor, Chris is responsible for the accuracy and consistency of all the articles on the site, and occasionally contributes stories. Chris was managing editor on Men’s Fitness UKCoach’s former sister title – for 12 years, and is now a freelance writer and editor working on The Guardian, the i, Virgin Media’s TV Edit and more, alongside Coach.