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It's a Sugar-Coated World We Live In

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It's a new year, and for many of you, cutting down on alcohol, chocolate or cigarettes may well be on your January agenda. But how about cutting back on fruit juice? Yes, that's right. One of your trusted five-a-day may not be doing you as much good as you think.

Once again the sugar debate has reared its head, with health professionals claiming that fruit juice is so high in sugar it shouldn't count as part of a healthy five-a-day diet. Perhaps a confusing message and one that many people would scan over, then probably forget about. But with obesity rates reported to be far exceeding once predicted figures, a very real weight crisis means all potential causes, or contributors, need serious consideration.

It may come as a shock, but some fruit juices can contain as much sugar as cola and other fizzy beverages that we typically associate as unhealthy. In fact, juice drinks, such as a cranberry juice cocktail and children's smoothie-type fruit drinks, are some of the highest sugar-containing beverages on our shelves.

Although pure fruit juice is a great source of vitamins, especially vitamin C, it still contains a large amount of naturally-occurring sugar. A small glass, with breakfast for example, can be enjoyed as part of a balanced diet. However, fruit juice is often misread as a healthy alternative to sugary drinks and therefore people are consuming far too much of it.

It's not surprising that people are struggling to understand what's healthy and what isn't. Fruit is naturally attributed to the 'five-a-day' slogan we've had drummed into us - so what if it's raw or juiced? The answer is in the processing. When fruit is juiced or blended, the sugar is released. And many juice drinks also have added sugar, turning it into a sugar-laden beverage that should only be enjoyed as an occasional treat.

It's not just juice drinks that can be confusing. Scanning the supermarket shelves for the healthiest option is often a mind boggle. Tinned fruits, tropical juice drinks, spaghetti hoops and even high-sugar breakfast cereals are often packaged and advertised as a 'healthy' choice. But low in fat doesn't always mean low in sugar.

For parents, it's a hard enough struggle as it is to get something healthy into their children on a daily basis. Contending with mixed messages on what's healthy and what's not, and hidden sugars in so-called 'healthy' options, makes it an almost impossible task. Although parents are ultimately responsible for their children's diet, and their own, I would also argue that food companies, policy makers and the Government all play an important part in making it easier to select healthy options.

Hopefully, the sugar debate will gain some much needed attention this time round, with obesity hitting the headlines in tandem this week. The report in question, from the National Obesity Forum, has warned that previous predictions of a 50% obese population by 2050 could be dramatically underestimated. Public Health England recently estimated that 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children could be obese by the time we hit the half century mark.

Although physical activity rates and unhealthy eating habits on the whole need attention, our ever-increasing sugar intake is something that urgently needs addressing. Action on Sugar is a great example of work that's already being done to reduce the amount of sugar added to food and soft drinks. The working group has been set up by the team behind Consensus Action on Salt and Health.

It's action groups such as this that are needed to really drive changes at every level. Working with food manufacturers, processors and suppliers, as well as the Government and policy makers, a real difference can be made. Change cannot simply be left to happen on an individual level; yes, everyone has the choice to decide what they eat and drink, but effective interventions are key to drive behaviour change on a large scale.

Millions of pounds have been put into effective anti-smoking campaigns to educate people about the link between smoking and poor health. This has taken a long time to make any difference - and there's still a long way to go. But anti-obesity campaigns in my opinion are not hard-hitting enough, and the health risks associated with obesity are not reaching the masses. In fact, some anti-obesity campaigns are based on colourful cartoon characters with bouncy music. Perhaps shock tactics, such as written warnings on food packaging or images showing the long-term complications of type 2 diabetes, would have a more profound effect?

It's becoming a sugar-fuelled, sugar-coated world that we live in. And the worrying part is that people are confused about what a healthy choice really is. And I don't blame them. Messages need to be clearer, packaging should not be misleading and effective anti-obesity campaigns need to be much further up on our agenda.

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