By Sarah Bates
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The war on sugar lets food firms off the hook

This article is over 5 years, 10 months old
Issue 2606
Eat junk food to be happy say the adverts, while some talk up their ‘fruit’ content to appear healthier
Eat junk food to be happy say the adverts, while some talk up their ‘fruit’ content to appear healthier

It looks like the food industry is winning the first battle in the war over sugar in food. 

The first results are out for Public Health England’s (PHE) “health by stealth” sugar reduction strategy. And it’s not nearly as successful as it had hoped for.

PHE’s goal is to reduce sugar in food by 20 percent by 2020, with a 5 percent cut in the first year. Yet in the first year, the reduction was just 2 percent.

PHE is asking food manufacturers to sell food with less sugar, alongside encouraging cafes and restaurants to cut the amount of sugar in food portions. 

But in its first assessment PHE admitted, “Sugar levels are generally the same across all sectors.”

And 12 percent of products from the top 20 brands responsible for the most sugar sales showed a rise in sugar levels.

PHE said companies should reduce sugar by changing recipes, cutting portion sizes or encouraging people to buy no-sugar products.

Food bosses have jumped on the opportunity to make a smaller product, while increasing the price.

Former Labour health minister Ben Bradshaw blasted last week’s report.


“This is extremely disappointing and reinforces the need for a much stronger anti-obesity strategy from the government,” he said.

“The food and advertising industry are still in denial about this major public health crisis and their role in it.”

But food industry bosses are not unaware of the damage high levels of sugar can have on health. They’re simply able to ignore it.

Under current rules, PHE is asking companies to make changes voluntarily—with no penalties if they don’t. 

More direct is the next phase of the sugar reduction strategy—the controversial “sugar tax” imposed on soft drinks from April this year.

Drinks containing lots of sugar pay a levy of either 18p or 24p per litre. But manufacturers can simply pass that cost onto the consumer. 

Earlier this year Coca-Cola announced plans to downsize a 1.75 litre bottle to 1.5 litre and put the price up by 20p.

The report’s findings come as healthcare experts warn about rising levels of obesity and the effect on the NHS.

University College London looked at population data and obesity.

Lead researcher Alan Moses said Britain is “undergoing a rising trend for both obesity and diabetes and it is unsustainable for patients and the healthcare system”.

But making certain foods more expensive for working class people does not address more fundamental questions about diet.

People don’t need moralising lectures or more expensive food—they need support in living healthier lives.

Don’t blame ordinary people for poor health, blame Tories and their system

The sugar tax is based on deeply paternalistic ideas about working class people.

Some sugar tax advocates are well-meaning. They insist that good health is simply a matter of educating everyone to stop making poor dietary choices. 

But talk of “choice” and “lifestyle” ignores the fact that health is largely shaped by class.

A baby born in one of the richest areas in Britain will outlive one born in one of the poorest by eight years.

It’s much easier for richer people to buy fresh, organic and locally sourced food if they wish because they have more money and time.

Everyone should have access to good food. But punitive taxes are not the answer.


Poorer people are the most likely to be obese, but not because they are too lazy or too stupid to understand healthy eating.

It’s partly because they are bombarded with advertising encouraging them to buy pre-prepared foods with high levels of salt, fat and little nutritional value.

People in low-paid jobs don’t always have the money to make “choices” about what to eat.

And with food bank usage up by 13 percent since last year, for some it is simply a case of getting enough to eat.

But politicians and celebrity chefs focus on legislative changes that hinge on assumptions about working class people.

Last month Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, met celebrity chef and multi-millionaire Jamie Oliver to discuss childhood obesity.

Sturgeon committed to ending supermarket junk food promotions such as two for one pizza deals.

This strategy hinges on the idea that bad food should be more expensive so that poor people are forced to eat less of it.

Rather than encourage healthy eating, Sturgeon, Oliver and others want to price people into a diet of their choosing.

Healthy, nutritious food should be made cheaper. But health is more than just a matter of being able to afford or access healthy food.

Health is affected by how society is set up.

For instance, many ordinary people can’t spare the time or cash to join exercise classes or gyms.

The Tories’ plans to roll out Universal Credit across England will snatch free school meals from a million children.

Their handwringing over children’s dietary health is rank hypocrisy.


The Tories have cut health care, slashed jobs and frozen public sector pay. All these things make it harder for ordinary people to be healthy.

The world is structured so that people feel powerless and alienated. One of the impacts is that people behave in ways that can harm their health.

Some people turn to junk food as a comfort or a “treat”.

It’s not surprising when we are surrounded by cheap takeaways and adverts claiming junk food will make us happier (see picture).

Looking to the Tories to take action about working class people’s health leads to punitive measures. 

We need to fight the Tories and for a world where ordinary people have a say in how society is organised.

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