Shame on sugar

Posted on May 10, 2016

Liverpool City Council has decided that the people of that fair city are in need of help to understand the amount of sugar in a variety of popular soft drinks. 'Is your child’s sweet tooth harming their health?' outlines how many sugar cubes are in drinks such as Lucozade, Coca Cola, Tropicana, Capri-Sun and Ribena. The campaign is scaremongering and redundant.

According to the Council's website: 'The drive is aimed at tackling an alarming level of tooth decay in young children in the city, with dentists having to remove teeth from children as young as five under general anaesthetic on a daily basis. Around 2,000 children in the city will have had extractions by the age of five, and more than a third will have suffered from tooth decay.' Never mind that dental health has improved dramatically in recent decades and that factors such as access to dentists and regular brushing are at least as important as sugar intake in predicting whether children will need tooth extractions. Tooth decay can be treated by fillings if caught early enough - the need for multiple extractions suggests that medical intervention has come far too late.

Then we get a list of the usual unhealthy suspects: 500ml of Lucozade contains 15.5 cubes (64 grams) of sugar and the equivalent bottle of Coca-Cola has 13.5 cubes (54 grams). This is contrasted with a maximum daily allowance of five to seven cubes for children (thanks to a recent downward revision in targets). The campaign highlights that even healthier options such as Tropicana orange juice have 7.5 sugar cubes (30 grams) in a 300ml bottle. 

Actually, this is not really accurate. Lucozade Original doesn't contain what we normally call 'sugar' - table sugar, aka sucrose; it's a glucose drink (though other varieties of Lucozade do contain sucrose). The implication, by using sugar lumps, is that sugar is added to all these drinks, which is clearly not true for Tropicana orange juice, which is naturally that sweet. If using sugar lumps as a reference point is supposed to help, it's also potentially misleading. Just to note the confusion over all this, the campaign poster notes that orange juice also counts as one of your five-a-day!

The council's director of public health, Dr Sandra Davies, proclaims: 'We are the first local authority in the country to name how much sugar is in specific brands because we feel it is really important that all parents have the facts they need when making decisions about which drinks to give their children.'

One possible reason that Liverpool got there first is that the campaign is utterly redundant. This information has been pumped out by every media outlet for the past couple of years, especially since campaign group Action on Sugar was launched in early 2014. AoS has developed the trick of regularly producing new 'research' (in other words, reading the back of packets) to 'reveal' the 'shocking' levels of sugar in our food.

And the fact that the Liverpool's public health department is trumpeting this campaign is no doubt a desperate attempt to justify its existence. When we already have the NHS spending £116 billion per year on healthcare, why on earth do we need local public health organisations, too?

All of this has been lapped up by a willing media keen to find a new story that plays yet again on our fears about food. Indeed, it must be worth asking why a local council's decision to put out some advice about a small range of food products has been reported so widely, particularly when those claims have been made numerous times before, most notably by Jamie Oliver. In the campaign world, it's called 'momentum' - find any excuse to cover the story again, to make it appear as if more and more evidence of harm has been coming out.

You can be sure it will all be used to heap pressure on the public to avoid sugary products and on food manufacturers to reduce sugar content. Never mind personal choice - sugar is the spawn of the devil and we must be warned off it. And if the warnings don't work, we'll have more government action, like George Osborne's sugary drinks tax, to make damn sure we cut back.