It was a classic BBC News juxtaposition. First, the news that scientists from UCL and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine now recommend that sugar should make up no more than 3 per cent of our energy intake, in order to reduce tooth decay. This follows the recommendation from the World Health Organisation earlier this year that we halve our daily sugar intake in order to tackle obesity. Then, barely five minutes later, came the announcement that the London Eye will be sponsored by none other than Coca-Cola from January.
In less than 300 seconds, the BBC managed to encapsulate the problems we face when it comes to sugar. On the one hand, we are more and more frequently being bombarded with facts telling us how bad sugar is for our health. On the other, there is relentless pressure from the food and drink industry to increase our sugar intake through advertising, sponsorship, and special deals. For students especially, avoiding ‘bad’ sugar is nigh on impossible.
For most of the last four decades, the whipping boy of food health has been saturated fats; now, sugar seems to have taken over the mantle. Worse for your blood pressure than salt, worse for heart disease than fat, and the cause of a raft of diseases from cancer to Alzheimer’s to tooth decay, as well as being one of the leading causes of obesity, sugar is now the food to avoid according to the experts.
Of course, that’s not just added sugar: the recommendations of the WHO (World Health Organisation) cover “all sugars added to food, as well as sugar naturally present in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit concentrates”. These sugars are what is known as ‘empty calories’ – they play no positive role in your body’s internal workings, but are incredibly harmful and, even worse, hugely addictive. They are also the sugars that are nearly impossible to avoid.
The sponsorship of the London Eye by Coca-Cola is a case in point. London’s most visited tourist attraction is now sponsored by a company whose flagship drink would already take the average adult to their 5 per cent of their sugar target with just a single can. And the Eye’s not the only one: Cadbury sponsored the London 2012 Olympics, while Coca-Cola also sponsored the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. An Australian study found that children are being exposed to unhealthy messages for up to four hours per week during community sport. Large ‘community’ events and institutions are not taking their public responsibility seriously.
Neither are supermarkets. Walking into the Tesco on St Giles’ , you’re immediately assaulted by a host of freshly baked sugary ‘treats’ on one side, while the other showcases the latest deals on chocolates and sweets. Food manufacturers also include added sugar into a whole host of foods, from cereals to ketchup to pasta sauces, and even bread. It’s almost impossible for a student to live on a budget-friendly diet and at the same time avoid added sugar.
So, what can be done? The government claims that we are the first European country to have introduced voluntary traffic-light systems on food packaging so consumers can see how much sugar their food contains. But the problem is with the word ‘voluntary’: many companies have simply not signed up, and even if they do, knowing how much sugars is in your food won’t do much good if your student loan can’t stretch to more expensive foods without added sugar. A whole host of possible solutions have been suggested, including a controversial “sugar tax”, but it is clear that, whatever the solution, something has to be done to help people who want to take the latest health advice on board, but simply aren’t able to do so.