The redoubtable Director General of WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, two years ago accused “Big Food, Big Soda and Big Alcohol” of being as evil as “Big Tobacco”. Why so? Well, for “Big Soda” her criticism focused on high sugar content and its major contribution to the global obesity epidemic. The irony is that sugar, honey, sweetheart are familiar terms of affection in English and in other languages. Yet, for many nutritionists sugar and, particularly, added sugar, has become the spawn of the devil!
The noise level about sugar content in food and drink has risen inexorably over the past ten years with, arguably, 2015 being the annus horribilis for the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and, latterly, Suntory (Ribena). Sales of “regular” (i.e. not diet) carbonated beverages and fruit drinks have plummeted. But, even “healthy” 100% juice and smoothie sales have suffered as we find out, to our surprise, that there is as much sugar in the good stuff as the naughty stuff – there we were thinking we were sneaking stealth fruit into our children when we were contributing to them becoming as round as puddings!
Over time, more and more food products have been introduced with “naturally occurring sugars”, or “reduced sugar”, non-nutritive sweeteners (e.g. sucralose), natural, non-sugar sweeteners (e.g. stevia), and the really naughty High Fructose Corn syrup being removed. It’s a nightmare for consumers – we have to go to night school to work out which Coke to buy (regular, diet, zero or life, with or without cherry?). Confused or not, there’s a clear consensus that most of us take in too much sugar and it would be an excellent idea for families’ health and the financial health of our NHS if we cut back not just a little bit but radically.
Enter the arena, Tesco – bruised and battered but bound and determined to make a statement about its view on healthy products for kids. Inter alia, it bans kids drinks with added sugar such as Ribena and Capri-Sun prior to an anticipated comprehensive review of its entire kids drinks range. Tesco has the aim of reducing by 5% in a year the sugar content in their soft drink sales and offering only “healthy” drinks at the checkout. Roars of approval from the stands? Not a bit of it – shrieks of rage that Tesco is curtailing consumer choice and accusations of hypocrisy because tobacco products, booze, Coke and Mars bars are OK but Ribena is taboo! A muted approval from the nutritional special interest groups tempered further by “you should have done this earlier and more widespread across all sugary products”!
So, what’s our view? Starting with consumer health and recognizing that this is complex, it’s unequivocal that our diets have been too sugary and salty for years. With some notable exceptions (e.g. Heinz and reducing salt in its baked beans), the food and drink industry have been dragged kicking and screaming in to reformulation of their products and, in turn, major retailers have largely taken the view that, in a consumer-driven world, the retailer responsibility is to offer choice and let the shopper decide. On Type 2 diabetic matters, we’re long past this point – we have to take radical action. We simply cannot afford to continue on our present self-destructive nutritional path. Action is required by all stakeholders: viz. by individuals, families, the public sector, government, special interest groups, and the food and drink industry. On some issues, like a nation’s health in crisis, the State should be a nanny and so should all others who have a significant influence on the health outcome.
Widening our perspective, it’s clear that increasingly society is asking more of its members, and particularly those who are influential, to behave and take actions that are in the best interests of us all in the longer term. So, big business must go about its business, first, in a way that furthers society’s greater good and then, secondly, work out how it can make money doing so. If you wanted a role model for this, then, take a look at Unilever’s Paul Polman. He walks the talk on sustainable development. Worrisomely, however, in a decade or so, Unilever may, like Procter & Gamble, have exited the food and drink industry and totally embraced the world of non-food products as an avenue for more sustainable financial profitability!