Back to Twitter and Sugar at the same time…

…I have a bee in my bonnet on this whole Twitter/Social Media thing.  Sorry to bore you all with it.  My Twitter feed was full of People Against Sugar Tax.  I kept them in my feed for reasons of seeing what the other view is.  I was talking about how social media does more to reinforce our own opinions than challenge them in an earlier post – think Brexit and Trump.  Our social media feeds are often a reflection of our own views.  So in the spirit of seeing the alternate arguments I kept them in my ‘following’ box.  But they annoyed me so much that I stopped following them before Christmas.

I support the soda sugar levy (let us be accurate – this is not a blanket sugar tax which would be really hard to impose because sugar is added to different foods for a range of reasons, so taxing it in a blanket approach wouldn’t necessarily be making the most indulgent or least nutritious foods more expensive – if we want to make a difference in this way there needs to be a broader approach considering more than one nutrient in composite foods, but that is a different post to return to later!).  I don’t have a problem with someone having a different view and discussing and campaigning for an alternative approach but….

I do have a problem with just picking on a couple of very emotive points and swirling up a storm that does not reflect the consensus evidence based opinion on sugar and health.  They were bombarding the twittersphere with inaccurate statements that would appeal to many.  None using evidence appropriately or accurately.

‘Sugar tax is regressive and punishes the poor most’.  Shall we consider this a bit more.  This is not a blanket sugar tax (see point above).  It is targeting a discretionary group of foods i.e. they bring only energy and no other nutrient.  We could drink only water and not suffer any consequences except perhaps boredom.  The levy has been aimed at the manufacturers to encourage a speeding up of reformulation and increasing the choice at the lower end of sugar content.  Industry say that they were already doing this as there was growing consumer demand but agree that, as a result of the levy, this action is happenng much faster.  Children and teenagers get a much bigger contribution to their overall sugar intake from sugar sweetened beverages than other groups and as a result, soft drinks help to push up energy from refined sugar way above what is recommended.  We are seeing a huge increase in the removal of children’s teeth through decay and sugary drinks have a big role to play in this.  This problem is most prevalent in poorer communities so they stand to gain more than other groups if the levy is applied in the way that it was intended.

Those products at the lower end of the sugar content will not be subject to tax and the cost shouldn’t go up unless manufacturers spread the cost of the tax across their product range.  Manufacturers have the choice to do the right thing here.  Many companies are already improving their sugar profile to bring their drinks beneath the tax threshold – I think this is beneficial to those with less money – this was the hope which some companies are embracing.

‘This is stopping consumer choice – we should be able to choose sugary drinks if we want to.’ Sugary drinks will still be on sale, people can still buy drinks with very high sugar content.  But choice across the sector will be just as varied and companies will be going out of their way to make their drinks taste as good as they can – with a bit less sugar in some brands and varieties, but the range of choice won’t lessen, if anything it might increase.

The Nanny State gone mad.  Social engineering the way we eat.  Telling us what we should and shouldn’t eat.  No free choice!!  Emotive statements that strike a cord with many.  But would those same people be happy if the government took the same attitude about food safety.  Leave it up to the consumers to research whether the food was prepared in a safe way?  There would be an outcry.

Think of the horse meat scandal where traceability was lacking so companies didn’t know whether their lasagne or Shepherd’s pie was made with beef or horsemeat. It was big news and quite rightly.  We should know what is in our food and where it has come from.  Safety was not an issue in this case but people in the UK don’t routinely eat horsemeat – it was a problem for them.

But why is a similar approach to nutritional quality of products not greeted with open arms?  Why is it OK for food companies and restaurants be free from any responsibility when it comes to nutrient quality and potion sizing when formulating recipes and menus? I don’t mean to sound anti food industry, however the standard model of selling different products to make money for their share holders is not conducive overall public health.  There isn’t profit in reformulation of the standard to be better for all.  It is not just about making healthy options available, it is about making all that is on offer a bit better, even the least healthy options.  As consumers we should have to make an active choice to have the least healthy option rather than the other way around.

Industry won’t self regulate or change quickly to help improve product development so that better choices are the default.  There needs to be encouragement from elsewhere.  From those who have less vested interest, from authorities who want to save public money by improving public health, who want to improve life quality for people living longer and longer – not much point living longer if all the extra years we are given through improvements in medical care are spent with chronic illness!  And evidence based improvements – not marketing foods as though they are healthier because they are in line with the latest ‘health/wellness’ craze, think clean eating, paleo, raw……you know what I mean!!!

Industry has a power to do so much to shift the default to products with better nutrient profiles, increasing the ingredients we should eat more of whilst still providing the foods that we should eat less often.  Why is it a problem for the health ‘nannies’ and legislators to push and shape this?  Industry advertise and get us buying their foods using all sorts of manipulative tactics – marketing that any company selling anything uses – but it is nanny state gone mad when government tries to shift the default to something that is better for public health?  Why shouldn’t we ask our legislators to demand a certain level of due diligence from industry when it comes to the nutritional quality of the food that is sold to us?  Isn’t that part of protecting the consumer?

Companies say that they are only making what the consumers want but it could be argued that they tell us what we want through advertising.  Which comes first?   Huge amounts of money are spent on placing products, advertising, the timing and placement of those adverts, sponsorship deals – if it doesn’t work then those companies wouldn’t be parting with all that cash.  If just a small percent of that money was handed over to use similar tactics for foods we should be eating more of that could be amazing.

Any suggestions of interfering with advertising and promotions etc is lobbied against quite aggressively along with changes to labels and information on packaging.  Big industry have so much more power than health campaigners.

Yet some simple things, using the very things that currently encourage us to consume more calories, salt, fat and sugar, could be used to encourage the consumption of whole fruits, veg, fibre etc.  Meal deals should give us better overall nutrient profile of the ‘meal’, advertising and promotions, product placing and money saving offers could be used to get people buying better food.  Putting the better options at eye level, easier to grab compared to the higher calorie/nutrient poorer options, the meals marketed as ‘every day’ or ‘family’ should be expected to meet certain nutrition profiles to keep the salt, sugar and total calories per portion reasonable, to have some veg and some fibre there too so that this ‘everyday’ ‘family’ meal makes a better contribution to the diet of that family.  These reformulations are possible without making the cost of the product much different or negatively affect taste.

It is all very well shouting that healthier eating and tackling obesity is all about personal responsibility but in reality, environment, lifestyles and marketing along with lack of confidence in cooking make that harder and harder.  If we want to tackle obesity then it is not right to just leave it to personal responsibility.  Is shifting the environmental aspects of helping people make better choices so wrong? Just using the same tactics that the big food manufacturers have been using for years to get us to buy and eat their products.  Is it not just leveling the playing field a little if health professionals and legislators do some of the same things for a positive gain rather than money for the shareholders?

I  know there are big questions about the ‘how’ but with commitment to public health on both sides, the ‘how’ could be worked out.  It wouldn’t be perfect but any move in the right direction is good.  Like the sugar levy on soft drinks.  It won’t fix obesity but it is a move in the right direction.

OK rant over?  Been brewing that up since Food Matters Live.

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