January is traditionally the time when many people resolve to live a healthier lifestyle in the New Year. Reducing sugar intake is a popular resolution and a much-needed one, as according to national diet surveys, we are all eating far too much sugar. Worryingly, children and teenagers consume three times the official recommendation for sugar and adults over twice as much.
However, just before Christmas a prominent medical journal published an article challenging established health advice for people to cut their sugar consumption. The article claimed that dietary sugar recommendations are limited as they are based on low quality evidence. Crucially the review was paid for by the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a scientific group that is funded by multinational food companies including Coca-Cola, Kellogg's and Kraft Foods.
So for those of us who may have indulged in a selection box too many over the festive season, in the hope it won't have had a detrimental effect on our health (or waistlines), there are several very good reasons why health experts and the medical profession have discounted this review.
1. It is a fact that eating too much sugar is bad for health. This has been proven without a doubt. Consuming too many foods and drinks high in sugar can lead to weight gain and related health problems, as well as tooth decay.
2. Academics have highlighted several issues and inconsistencies with the methods used in the article. The journal that published the article even ran an accompanying editorial highlighting five shortcomings of the review paper. These include using inappropriate instruments to assess the quality of existing sugar consumption guidelines, disregarding and downgrading conclusions from the World Health Organisation and ignoring readily available calorie data. The editorial concluded that the review is an example of 'politicization of science' - that is when a sector (in this case the food and drink industry) attempt to cast doubt on established scientific consensus to serve their own agenda.
3. A gigantic conflict of interest. While it is right to scrutinise dietary guidelines, extreme caution must be used when there is such a significant conflict of interest. The ILSI, who funded the review, is in turn funded by key players in the multi-million food and drink industry - including the owners of Coca Cola, Frosties cereal and Dairy milk brands. There is a long history of industry attempting to discredit public health advice, dating back to the tobacco industry funding scientists to minimise the effects of smoking.
In the UK, we have an obesity epidemic. According to the latest data from the UK Health Survey, over a quarter of adults are obese. A further 41 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women are overweight. Obesity greatly increases risk of serious ill health in adults, including, type 2 diabetes, cancer, heart and liver disease, stroke and related mental health conditions. These conditions have a devastating impact on the public's health and the NHS' finances. The UK spends about £6 billion a year on the medical costs of conditions related to being overweight or obese. This figure is likely to be dwarfed by the indirect costs of obesity to employers and to society due to unemployment, early retirement and associated welfare benefits.
When it comes to sugar consumption, we desperately need to take steps to unsweeten the nation's tooth and significantly reduce our sugar intake. This is why the Obesity Health Alliance, a coalition of over 35 health charities, medical royal colleges and campaign groups is supporting the Government's soft drinks industry levy due to be implemented in 2018.
In a world where children can easily consume half the daily recommended sugar intake before the morning school bell rings, we also need to reduce the sugar in everyday food. It is vital that food manufacturers work with Public Health England on their plans to reduce the sugar in commonly eaten foods by 20%.
Reducing our sugar intake is a challenge, but these measures will help create an environment where the healthy choice is that bit easier, making us more likely to stick to that New Year resolution.