The big debate: Can sugar survive a public health crisis?

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The world is getting fatter and unhealthier - are smaller portions and diet drinks really going to help when they sit next to full-sugar, supersized products? Is it time to tax or is industry doing enough? Catch the highlights from our live debate.

FoodNavigator's online event on sugar reduction this week drew nearly 500 listeners from around the world who tuned into four industry heavyweights as they debated one of the biggest - no pun intended - issues affecting the world's health. 

The reasons behind skyrocketing obesity rates are myriad but the food we eat is number one. So what does industry need to do?

Who were our speakers?

Anke Sentkovice president regulatory affairs & nutrition communication at ingredient supplier Beneo.

Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and chairman of campaign group Action on Sugar.

Ronit Romm, head chemist at DouxMatok, an Israeli start-up whose patented flavour delivery molecule increases the perceived sweetness of sugar.

Sam Rowe, communications manager at UNESDA, the trade association that represents around 75% of European soft drinks manufacturers.

To listen to the live debate in full click here.

In the long-term, gradual reformulation is crucial, said MacGregor, giving the example of Kellogg which reduced the salt in its corn flakes by 60% without seeing any drop in sales.

But it is not helpful to use the success of salt reduction programmes as an example, countered Sentko, as salt is used in very small amounts. In foods such as cake, sugar makes up around one quarter to one third of the recipe, and it can’t simply be removed as it also adds to bulk, mouthfeel and texture. 

“There are solutions available but at the end of the day the product must have a better metabolic profile,” she said.

In drinks, in any case, gradual reformulation is already happening, said Rowe. “A 12% sugar reduction [in soft drinks] has already happened and a further 10% has been agreed. If gradual reduction is what is wanted, that is what we are doing.”

Can nutrition labels win against multi-million marketing messages?

Sentko and Romm both said education is crucial to raising awareness of the health problems associated with excessive sugar intake.

“I’m not a big fan of taking products that people like out of the market,” said Sentko. “For me it’s about educating people […] If people know about the options they can make their choice. This includes clear messages and information.”

But the efficacy of this strategy was rubbished by MacGregor.

“It’s easy for you, you’re an educated nutritionist,” he said. “We’ve been educating people on what not to eat for the past fifty years but we’ve still become more and more obese. It doesn’t work and it particularly doesn’t work with socially-deprived individuals who get obese and die at 50.”­

Nutrition information is often overridden by powerful advertising, he added. “Industry targets poorer people in developed countries and the whole population in developing countries with marketing messages.  But it has a choice, it can make healthy food that we don’t need to die from due to high blood pressure, cholesterol and type-2 diabetes and still make a profit. Albeit a lower [profit] but there will be more consumers because dead consumers don’t eat food!”

Sweeteners: A short-term solution?

One listener asked whether industry should be trying to reduce the overall sweet taste of food in order to lessen our cravings for a sugary taste, or using sweeteners to keep the same taste with no calories.

Romm pointed out that artificial sweeteners have their own set of problems associated in terms of acceptability – “not a lot of people like the taste” - and that sugar as a carbohydrate is still an important source of available calories in an individual’s diet.  “We need to get used to having lower levels of sweetness while at the same time enjoying technologies that allow us to reduce sugar amounts and maintain the sweetness,” she said.

Artificial sweeteners have not been proven to reduce overweight but, in the short term, they are useful in cutting calories from drinks, said MacGregor.

'We need to make products that people will actually buy'

Some of the biggest challenges faced by the drinks industry stemmed from different preferences, according to Rowe. “We may have an EU of 28 but we all have very different taste preferences when we eat and drink. So for example 44% of soft drink sales in the UK have no sugar and no calories but that’s just 1% in Lithuania and 7% in Italy. One of the challenges for us is to be able to put products on the market that people will actually buy.”

Romm confirmed that DouxMatok sees great regional differences in demand for its flavour molecule.

It’s a chicken and egg situation,” said Rowe. “Some countries are much more advanced in accepting drinks with no calories whereas others like sugared ones so you can nudge and this is what we are trying to do, but some are more advanced in appreciating that than others.”

But according to MacGregor, not enough is happening on a voluntary basis and industry needs to be pushed to act. More action on sugar reduction has occurred in the UK in the few months since the government announced plans for a sugary drinks tax than in the past ten years, he said.

Call for innovation

The discussion ended with a call for innovative research to pave the way for new sweeteners, such as monkfruit. “Europe is open to new innovation it’s just that it can take a long time [due to the novel foods regulation]," said Sentko. "At the end of the day, you need to show that the product is safe for human consumption. If it is accepted by the authorities then new product development is possible – all the alternatives that we have on the market today went through this process.

"I can only invite everyone to go ahead with product innovations. It increases our choices for finding solutions for great-tasting products. Innovation is more than welcome.” 

 

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How should the industry tackle sugar reduction?

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