Sugar industry, an easy target?

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food industry, Nutrition, Obesity, Food

'It is incorrect to focus on any specific food or ingredient in
attempting to address obesity,' cautions the US food industry, in
the face of mounting criticism that sugar intake plays a key role
in today's overweight society.

The response comes after several reports place the responsibility for obesity partly in the hands of the food industry.

"Consumers should focus on how to eat, not what to eat, and develop behaviours to help them choose balanced and healthy diets,"​ said Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy for the €500 billion industry body, the National Food Processors Association (NFPA).

Manufacturers of processed foods - in particular sugar-based products - have come under attack from consumer bodies, among others, who claim the industry should play a more responsible role in combatting today's 'globesity'.

An ongoing debate, the food industry reacted last year when the UN-backed body, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued a joint report with the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) that suggested free sugars should be restricted to less than 10 per cent of total energy. Underpinning the report was a guideline to restrict sugar intake, already in place in more than 20 countries.

Approximately 300 million people worldwide are believed to be obese and 750 million overweight. Mounting evidence suggests that obesity significantly increases the risk of heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening conditions.

Considering the evidence laid out in the WHO report, Jim Mann from the University of Otago in New Zealand, writes this week in the peer-reviewed journal The Lancet​ (Issue 27 March 2004 Lancet 2004; 363: 1068-70) that "when considered in aggregate they [available studies] provide considerable evidence to suggest that sucrose and other free sugars contribute to the global epidemic of obesity."

He discusses how intensive lobbying from the US food industry threatens the adoption by the World Health Assembly (WHA) of the - to date controversial - WHO global strategy on diet, physical activity, and health.

"Industry objections seem to centre largely on the recommended intake of sugar. There are claims by food industries and some governments that evidence on which the recommendations are based is insufficient and that other authoritative reports do not concur,"​ he writes, while recognising that sugar has a crucial role to play in the global economy.

Although backed by a host of countries, including Britain and France, the WHO strategy failed to appeal to the US, who stood out on a limb by refusing to go along with the strategy that also suggests governments set taxation and subsidy policies to promote healthy eating habits. Observers note that the US government was lobbied heavily by the influential US food industry, that said the framework put too much of the burden for diet reform on states.

WHO waved through the US proposal, buying the Americans time to suggest changes to the WHO document drawn up last year by nutritional experts and member states.

The sugar industry reacted to ongoing criticisms by placing the responsibility for weight gain firmly in the hands of the individual. "The most important message for consumers is that, to manage weight, you must balance calories consumed against energy expended. To lose weight, calorie expenditure must be greater than calories consumed,"​said Earl, echoing the views of many a sugar confectionery manufacturer.

A responsibility that has also driven the consumer to the billion euro weight-loss food and beverage market and seen manufacturers continuing to roll out line after line of weight-loss products.

The European confectionery market - of which sugar confectionery such as gums, jellies and toffees represents a keen slice - is a significant sector of the European food industry. In the UK alone, a recent report from Key Note estimated the segment to be worth £5.96 billion in 2002. Sales of confectionery products have risen in the past 5 years and, in 2002, grew by 5.5 per cent in value.

Related topics: R&D

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