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Calls to cut sugar in fizzy drinks by 40%

Lancet study says move would slash obesity and diabetes numbers

Source: FT

by: Scheherazade Daneshkhu, Consumer Industries Editor

January 6th

Cutting the amount of sugar in fizzy drinks by 40 per cent would prevent 1m adults from becoming obese and 250,000 people from developing diabetes, according to a study published on Thursday.

The study in The Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology will add to debate about how to tackle the growing problem of obesity, which is costing Britain’s National Health Service £5bn a year.

It comes ahead of the UK government’s long-awaited strategy on tackling childhood obesity, which is due to be published this month.

Measures under consideration include sugar reduction targets for food and drinks companies, banning advertisements for high-sugar products to children and closing fast food outlets near schools.

The authors of the research said that a gradual reduction of sugar over five years – without adding artificial sweeteners – could be a more palatable alternative for the drinks industry than measures such as a tax on fizzy drinks.

In an accompanying commentary, Tim Lobstein, director of policy at the London-based World Obesity Federation, said the measure would be “a relatively painless shove to industry rather than a nudge to consumers”.

Big food and drinks companies have been vociferous in their opposition to a sugar tax or forced changes to recipes, arguing that sugar is being demonised and that consumers have a huge choice of products, including low or no sugar alternatives.

Gavin Partington, director-general of the British Soft Drinks Association, said: “The hypothetical claims made in this study run contrary to the evidence. Sugar consumption in the UK has been declining for many years, particularly from soft drinks, as government statistics testify, while levels of obesity increased.”

Consumers have become more interest in sugar and calorie content, according to Anheuser-Busch InBev, the Belgian brewer that has launched a takeover bid for SABMiller.

It said on Wednesday it would provide more detailed labelling on its beers in Europe because millennials were more calorie-conscious than older age groups.

The brewer also said its research showed that fewer than 20 per cent of adults had any idea of the amount of calories in beer.

While obesity is now a big problem across the world, the debate on how to tackle it has become increasingly polarised between health officials and food and drinks producers.

In Mexico, which has one of the highest levels of obesity and diabetes in the world, a 10 per cent tax on sugar sweetened drinks imposed in January 2014, was associated with a 12 per cent fall in sales, according to a separate study, also published on Thursday.

The research in The BMJ found that Mexicans living in cities bought 4.2 fewer litres of taxed beverages in 2014 and 12.8 more litres of untaxed beverages, mainly bottled water.

However, Tom Sanders, professor of nutrition at King’s College, London, said: “This is equivalent to about 1 sugar cube [per day], which is a drop in the caloric ocean.”

Sugar consumption in the UK is well above recommended daily limits, particularly among teenagers.

One of the authors of the Lancet study – Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and a medical professor at Queen Mary University of London – called on the government to implement “mandatory targets with robust enforcement”.

The Department of Health said: “We will be launching our childhood obesity strategy shortly. It will look at everything, including sugar, that contributes to a child becoming overweight and obese.”