Sugar is as damaging and addictive as alcohol or tobacco, and should therefore be regulated, according to a team of health experts from the University of California, San Francisco. (photo from radio-canada.ca)
They said that new policies and taxes are needed to control soaring consumption of sugar and sweeteners.
Over the past 50 years the consumption of sugar has tripled worldwide, with links to obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Several countries are already imposing taxes on unhealthy food : Denmark and Hungary have a tax on saturated fat and France has approved a tax on soft drinks.
In a comment in the journal Nature, Prof Robert Lustig – a leading child obesity expert and professor of paediatrics at the University of California – says governments need to consider major shifts in public policy, including taxes, limiting sales of sweet food and drinks during school hours, or even stopping children from buying them below a certain age.
Prof Lustig told the BBC : “It [sugar] meets all the criteria for societal intervention that alcohol and tobacco meet.”
Although they acknowledge that they face “an uphill political battle against a powerful sugar lobby”, the researchers also wrote in Nature that “with enough clamour for change, tectonic shifts in policy become possible”.
“Take, for instance bans on smoking in public places and the use of designated drivers, not to mention airbags in cars and condom dispensers in public bathrooms.
“These simple measures – which have all been on the battleground of American politics – are now taken for granted as essential tools for our public health and well-being. It’s time to turn our attention to sugar.”
According to Barbara Gallani, director of food safety and science at the UK Food and Drink Federation, they recognised the worldwide health burden of non-infectious diseases and agreed action was needed.
But she also explained that “the causes of these diseases are multifactorial and demonising individual food components does not help consumers to build a realistic approach to their diet”.
“The key to good health is a balanced and varied diet, in the context of a healthy lifestyle that includes plenty of physical activity.”
Taxing certain food products is something policymakers should consider, said Dr Peter Scarborough of the British Heart Foundation Health Promotion Research Group at the University of Oxford.
However he added that there could be unintended consequences to taxing only one type of food, like people cutting back on fruit and vegetables to save money for other purchases.
“If you tax fat, salt and sugar, combined with subsidies for fruit and vegetables, you’ll get healthier diets,” he told the BBC.