News-Spoon full of sugar

Obesity in the Netherlands has doubled in the last 20 years.

Everyone knows the Netherlands is a pleasant place to visit and the Dutch have a pretty laid-back attitude to some errr… ‘vices’ such as Cannabis – but maybe not so to Sugar. Paul van der Velpen is head of the Amsterdam Public Health Services and wants to see it regulated. Obesity in the Netherlands has doubled in the last 20 years or so and he blames much of that on sugar, not the deep-fried croquettes, cannabis or certain other things on offer in De Wallen. ‘Just like alcohol and tobacco, sugar is actually a drug. It is the most dangerous drug of the times and can be easily acquired everywhere’ he says on the official public health website. He has cited research suggesting that sugar – unlike fat or other foods – as well as making you fat is actually addictive, creating an insatiable desire to continue eating. He has accused the food industry of cynically exploiting the effect by adding extra sugar to processed food to increase sales. Now he wants to set limits set on how much can be added, plus a ban on sugar-laden sweets and soft drinks sold in schools and cigarette packet-style warnings about the health risk.

His suggestions come in the wake of new guidelines on sugar intake proposed by the World Health Organisation. The WHO is likely to recommend adults halve their average daily sugar intake from the current ten teaspoons a day to five in order to reduce diabetes, heart disease, obesity and tooth decay. If the UK Department of Health adopts the guidelines (as seems likely) then food companies will be forced to reduce sugary ingredients. That would be hugely expensive for the industry and might prove highly unpopular with it’s sugar-addicted customers.

The work for WHO has been led by the snappily-named ‘International Association for the Study on Obesity’ which has described the guidelines as ‘political dynamite’ given the size of investment in the food industry. A spokesperson suggested ‘The food industry will do everything in their power to undermine the guidelines’ which was a sentiment echoed in the UK by ‘Action on Sugar’, a pressure group urging the DoH to adopt the recommendations without delay.

The target is a 30% reduction over 5 years with enforceable standards which don’t leave manufacturers too much room for ‘interpretation’ of labelling rules.

‘Action on Sugar’ has been set up by the same people who gave us ‘Consensus Action on Salt and Health’ (CASH) to reduce consumers’ salt intake and their blood pressure. CASH was highly successful at raising awareness, partly because it’s Chairman, Graham MacGregor is professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventative Medicine. He is now pressing the Dept. of Health to set sugar content standards for the food industry although he concedes this can be done bit by bit. The target is a 30% reduction over 5 years with enforceable standards which don’t leave manufacturers too much room for ‘interpretation’ of labelling rules. The group has kicked-off it’s campaign by ‘naming and shaming’ several products, including:

• Starbucks Caramel Frappucino with whipped cream (tall) – 11 teaspoons of sugar.
• Coca Cola Original (330ml) – 9 teaspoons of sugar
• Mars bar – (standard size) – 5 teaspoons of sugar
• Heinz tomato soup (300ml) – 4 teaspoons of sugar

Reducing sugar content could be good news for Fruiterers (a quick fructose fix for office workers?) but equally bad news for Starbucks – not that they care too much after years of dodging UK tax.

This is the start of a long and potentially very boring debate whilst scientists argue about how you define sugar content – added sugar versus naturally-occurring sugar etc – but will have a fundamental impact on food ingredients. A ‘Mars a day’ could definitely be your limit unless manufacturers opt to change ingredients.

Whilst the food industry lines up for the battle the tobacco industry continues to receive a battering. The not-so-good news for Irish smokers is an announcement by Irish Health Minister James Reilly of plans for a ‘tobacco-free Ireland’ by 2025. ‘Smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Ireland’ he stated, whilst acknowledging it poses an ‘extraordinary challenge’ to reduce smoking from 22% to under 5% of the population. But maybe he’ll be successful; No-one expected the Irish government to be successful with it’s 2004 ban on smoking in public buildings. It now proposes to extend this to parks and beaches to ‘de-normalise’ smoking for children.

Meanwhile the recession and sky-high duty rates have fuelled a surge in cigarette smuggling into the UK and Ireland.

The worldwide price differences make it amazingly profitable – until you get caught that is. The smugglers’ benchmark is the ‘Marlboro index’ which currently stands at well over £8.00 for 20 fags in the UK and Ireland, versus £1.10 in Russia and the Far East. Not surprisingly HM Revenue and Customs and the Irish Gardai are hammering anyone who tries to import or sell smuggled fags. Don’t be tempted by anyone offering them as a profitable sideline for your stall.

On a lighter note, if you want to see how much you’re paying for your fun and filthy habits take a look at the ‘Vice-ometer’ calculator at http://www.thisismoney.co.uk It tells you how much of your booze, fags and lottery money goes back to the government in tax. Sadly it doesn’t include the cost of a lads’ weekend in Amsterdam or what you have to do to earn an ounce of snout in Wormwood Scrubs. I’m told one of them isn’t very nice.

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