The spat coincides with Labour shadow public health minister Luciana Berger’s claims the government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) with industry to create healthier food was “collapsing”.
At a Commons health select committee March 4, Dame Sally Davies said she thought research, much of it from the US, would find sugar was addictive and a tax should therefore be introduced.
However, there is currently no research to suggest Davies’s claims would be substantiated, said leading professor of biological psychology in nutrition and behaviour at Bristol University, Professor Peter Rogers.
“I would certainly suggest that sugar doesn’t pose a health risk to human beings and a debate about calling it addictive is not helpful either,” he said.
Addiction meant feeling helpless to control one’s own behaviour, he added. “So saying sugar is addictive is a misuse of the science, because it doesn’t lead us to that conclusion.”
‘Misuse of science’
Many current animal studies being used to make claims of addiction had been “over-interpreted”, he added and people were not using the right language to convey the results of scientific studies.
“Yes, we have a few animal studies that have reported to show addictive effects, but it’s at much weaker levels than addictive drugs.”
Despite contradictory scientific evidence, many lobby groups and health professionals have called for a 20% tax on sugar in food and drinks to tackle unhealthy eating habits.
Action on Sugar (AoS), a group set up earlier this year to reverse the obesity epidemic, said it hoped the food and drinks industry would change its ways before heavy-handed action had to be taken.
“The main aim of AoS is to try and get reformulation in food and drinks with high sugar content,” said AoS nutritionist and campaign director Katharine Jenner.
“If that doesn’t work, then we will agree that other ‘more firm’ approaches would be needed, such as tax and regulation.”
Lobby groups have also called for sugar to be a bigger part of the government’s PHRD, which has seen many companies reduce fats and salts in products to make them healthier.
However, Berger said Davies’s claims were a clear sign that the government’s flagship public health policy is “failing people across the country”.
She said the PHRD was clearly “collapsing” and accused ministers of “caving into big businesses”, leaving senior health officials in despair.
“The government must develop a meaningful public health policy and stop letting people pay the price for its lack of action,” she said.
WHO lowers sugar RDIs
Meanwhile, the government and industry is expected to pay more attention to sugar levels in food and drinks later today when the World Health Organisation (WHO) publishes its consultation on draft guidelines on sugars, suggesting that RDIs are lowered from 10% to less than 5%.
“This is something that not just the government needs to listen too, but also food and drinks manufacturers. They need to step up to the plate and take action to reduce the amount of sugar they add to food and drinks,” Jenner said.
The UK government should have taken action long ago, she said, since the WHO’s draft guidelines “were long overdue”. Worryingly, there were already people dramatically exceeding the current RDI of sugar, she said.