Dr Judith Bryans, Chief Executive of Dairy UK, weighs in on the sugar debate.
It is no secret that the childhood obesity crisis in the UK is no longer a looming threat but a real peril for the future of our younger generations.
All food and drink sectors have a duty to take the right steps to address it and dairy processors and manufacturers have been working relentlessly to ensure they deliver wholesome and nutritious dairy products to consumers.
Quite rightly so, policy-makers have moved tackling obesity to the top of the public health agenda with the Department of Health's upcoming Obesity Strategy and several reports and debates in Parliament.
However, in the last few weeks, a number of statements, reports and initiatives have raised several red flags on whether appropriate methods and solutions are being considered to tackle the issue.
The "war on sugar" is gaining more support every day, from politicians, interest groups and even opinionated celebrities. Unfortunately, there is no easy solution and targeting individual nutrients does not provide a balanced view of certain foods and often leads to serious misunderstandings about the overall value of whole foods.
Look at yogurt for example. An all-time favourite of children and grown-ups alike, yogurt is one of the simplest and healthiest dessert or snack. In addition to tasty plain yogurts, fruit yogurts offer a wide range of options to suit different tastes and expectations.
Yet the recent Public Health England campaign on Sugar Swaps has dropped yogurt in a 'pudding swap' category alongside sugar jellies and puddings, turning it into a product parents and children should be afraid of. Worse, the campaign app, Sugar Smart, exacerbates the confusion on yogurt and other dairy products with mixed messages on the difference between naturally occurring sugars in milk or fruit and free sugars.
It is true that we consume too much added sugar in the UK and the idea of a campaign aimed at helping people understand the amount and types of sugar in their food could seem like a good idea. Unfortunately, although the concept had potential, Public Health England has failed to deliver.
The Sugar Swaps advice was recently updated to reflect the new Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) recommendation of 5% of energy from free sugars. At the time of the publication of the SACN report, we welcomed the recommendations as we agreed there was a need to clearly distinguish total sugars from free sugars. This was in light of well-established evidence that naturally occurring sugars such as lactose in dairy products or sugars in fruits do not have adverse effects on health.
Nevertheless, in spite of the updated guidelines, some of the information listed on the campaign website and provided in the app do not differentiate natural sugars from free sugars and use an array of intriguing sizes for sugar cubes supposed to represent set amounts.
When scanning the barcode of a product with the app, the cubes of sugar that appear on screen indicate the total amount of sugar contained in this product, including natural sugars, instead of focusing solely on free sugars. This is particularly hard to understand given that Public Health England's own report "Why 5?" warned that there was "potential for confusion as food labelling legislation requires the declaration of total sugars, not free sugars."
The SACN report also states that "with the proposed reduction in the population intake of free sugars, their contribution toward recommended total carbohydrate intake should be replaced by starches, sugars contained within the cellular structure of foods and, for those who consume dairy products, by lactose naturally present in milk and milk products." As natural sugars are not properly distinguished from free sugars, the Sugar Smart app cannot help consumers achieve these swaps.
Talking to The Grocer this week, I had to wonder why Public Health England campaigns seem intent on singling out whole foods such as dairy products which contain a wealth of essential natural nutrients. Why vilify a natural and healthy dairy product such as yogurt when milk and dairy products only account for 7% of the intake of non-milk extrinsic sugars for children aged 11 to 18 compared to a staggering 40% coming from nutrient-poor soft drinks and juices and 21% from confectionery?
And that's not just yogurt. Not only does the Sugar Smart app not make distinction between natural and free sugars for flavoured yogurt but it also fails to define the small amounts of lactose found in cheese or butter as natural sugars.
There are many more issues with the Sugar Swap campaign including complex access to relevant information or out of date and erroneous data. Yet Public Health England has been working hard to promote the app as a useful tool to help consumers make enlightened choices about what they eat and as a great initiative in the fight against obesity. It is therefore very worrying to see that the information in this app is either misleading, in contradiction with other campaign material or sometimes plainly mistaken.
Consumers may be savvy shoppers but not all are nutrition experts, nor should we expect them to be. Given its mandate on consumer education, Public Health England should take responsibility for its own material, commit to providing accurate and user-friendly information to all consumers and take the appropriate steps to fix the app's inaccuracies.
We will be meeting Public Health England shortly to address these issues. In the meantime, we have alerted a number of key decision-makers both in Whitehall and Westminster to ensure that the right messages and proper tools are used to tackle obesity. There is still much to do but a blind war on sugar is not the answer.