Time for a New Year's Resolution - Let's Get Sugar Smart

06/01/2016 15:16 GMT | Updated 05/01/2017 10:12 GMT

Do you know how much sugar you consume each day? I suspect the answer for most of us would be no - in fact there is a surprising amount of sugar in everyday food we eat.

We know biscuits, cakes and chocolates contain plenty of sugar, but some food we think of as healthy, like yoghurts, can actually contain a lot of sugar.

Soft drinks make up almost a third of the added sugar in the diets of 4- to 10-year-olds (40% in 11- to 18-year-olds), while just over a tenth comes from yoghurts, ice cream and other dairy desserts. A regular 30g serving of some breakfast cereals with milk can contain up to 12g sugar - that's almost half.

A new campaign was launched this week urging people to get smart about sugar. The Change4Life Sugar Smart campaign encourages families to learn more about how much sugar is in their food and drink, so they can take control over how much they consume.

The campaign also points out new government guidelines on the maximum amount of sugar we should consume daily - no more than 5% of daily calorie intake.

That's around 30g or 7 sugar cubes for everyone over 11-years-old; 24g or 6 cubes for 7- to 10-year-olds; and 19g or 5 cubes for 4- to 6-year-olds.

Why have the guidelines changed?

Back in July, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN), an independent expert body, recommended how much sugar there should be in a daily diet. The recommendation was part of the first wide-ranging look at the relationship between sugar consumption and health in the UK since the 1990s.

SACN examined the evidence on the relationship between sugars, starches and fibre, and health and concluded:

  • Too much sugar consumption is associated with a greater risk of dental caries
  • Having too many sugary-drinks is associated with increased risk of Type 2 diabetes
  • The amount of sugar consumed is proportional to calorie intake - the more sugar you consume, the more calories you take on and vice versa
  • Having sugary-drinks results in greater weight gain in children and teenagers and increases in their body mass index.

The sugars we refer to here are 'free sugars'. Free sugars are those that are added to food, or those naturally present in honey, syrups and unsweetened fruit juices. It does not include the sugars naturally present in whole fruit and vegetables or dairy products.

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I'm sure most people will know that too much sugar is bad for health, but we still consume too much of it.

On average, adults more than double (12%) the recommendation, with children tripling it (15%). As SACN pointed out, the more sugar you consume, the more calories you take in.

Too many calories will lead to weight gain and obesity. Around a quarter of adults are obese, while a third of children leaving primary school are overweight or obese.

Obesity is the health issue of our time. It results in a greater risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease, as well as some types of cancer. In her annual report, published at the end of last year, Chief Medical Officer Professor Dame Sally Davies called for obesity to be treated as a national threat.

Indeed, if left unchecked, obesity levels threaten not only the health and quality of life of the population, but also the sustainability of our national health service.

How do we get from recommendation to reality?

Given how far we exceed the recommendations currently, cutting down sugar intake to the new maximum recommendation of 5% will be a big challenge. So there is no better time to meet the challenge head on.

Swapping sugary drinks such as fizzy pop, juice drinks or energy drinks to water, lower-fat milks and diet or sugar free drinks can really help to reduce the amount of sugar being consumed by children and young people.

The Sugar Smart campaign and its free and easy to use app, have been designed to help families cut sugar consumption and make healthier choices.

With the Sugar Smart app, parents and children can use their smartphones to scan the barcodes of thousands of everyday food and drink products to find out how much sugar they contain.

The campaign is also giving away 5 million free Sugar Smart packs to primary age children and their families that explain the new guidelines, provide easy-to-follow hints and tips on how to eat less sugar and reveal how much sugar there is in everyday food and drink.

However, individual action is just part of the solution - government and industry also have key roles to play. Public Health England has published a review of possible measures to reduce sugar consumption, including controls on how high-sugar food and drink products are marketed and promoted, gradually reducing the sugar in foods and drinks, and the possible use of a tax.

This will help inform the government's child obesity strategy, expected this year.

Action to tackle obesity is required across not only health and social care, but also wider public services and society. Yet personal responsibility is also essential. Getting sugar smart is a great way to help you and your family lead healthier lives.