Cutting sugar is a different challenge to slashing salt
- 18:27 13 January 2014 by Clare Wilson
A war on sugar has begun in the UK that echoes the nation’s successful crusade against salt. The effort is welcome because it could help to reduce obesity, but cutting sugar out of people’s diets poses fresh challenges.
Last week, a group of academics and policy experts specialising in medicine and nutrition announced that they had formed a campaign group, Action on Sugar. Their idea is to convince manufacturers to collectively and gradually lower the amount of sugar added to foods – so slowly that it isn’t missed by consumers.
It is essentially the same strategy as a campaign that is widely credited with reducing British people’s salt intake – and the same people who created the Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) are now behind Action on Sugar.
Over the past decade, CASH, a non-government organisation, helped to create anti-salt advertising aimed at the general public, plus year-by-year targets for companies to reduce salt levels. These were voluntary but had the backing of the government, and it was implied that the targets would be legally enforced if companies resisted. Most manufacturers lowered their salt levels – and, on average, there has been a 15 per cent drop in salt intake in the UK, according to CASH.
Repeating the trick with sugar may be more complicated, not least because we do not know for sure if our palates can adjust to eating food that is less sweet. By contrast, studies have shown that if volunteers are forced to eat a less salty diet, over several weeks they gradually begin to prefer food that is less salty.
“There’s no reason to think that would not hold true for sweet taste too,” says Charles Spence, a neurogastronomist at the University of Oxford. Still, the same studies have not yet been done with sugar, says Danielle Reed, a geneticist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia in the US. “It’s never been demonstrated that it actually would work,” says Reed. “It’s just a guess.”
The option to use artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and saccharin to replace sugar may complicate things further. CASH hasn’t explicitly recommended this, but it seems like an obvious strategy. Yet a few studies suggest that artificial sweeteners, although they are less calorific than sugar, may still promote weight gain. That’s because sweeteners do not send the right signals to the satiety monitoring centres in the brain, the theory goes. Sugar may not make you feel as full as fibre, say, but it does encourage satiety more than artificial sweeteners.
As well as promoting weight gain, non-sugar sweeteners might make it difficult to ensure that different companies’ products taste similarly sweet with the same reduction in sugar content. This will be important for getting our palates to adjust to food that is less sweet.
A further challenge could be the UK government, which has changed since the CASH campaign began: the current Conservative-led government tends to be less keen on regulation.
Still, Action on Sugar does have the potential to significantly improve health in the UK, which, like much of the rest of the world, has seen steadily climbing obesity levels over the past few decades. Meanwhile, the sugar added to processed foods – from ready meals to bread, flavoured water and even soup – is increasingly seen as one of the unhealthiest aspects of modern diets.
A 20 to 30 per cent reduction in the sugar added to food would cut the average person’s energy intake by about 100 calories a day, enough to halt the obesity epidemic, according to Action on Sugar. And the group isn’t the first to suggest a concerted effort to reduce sugar intake.