Food manufacturing boss slams NHS sugar criticism

By Michael Stones contact

- Last updated on GMT

FDF boss Ian Wright has slammed NHS criticism of the industry's record on sugar
FDF boss Ian Wright has slammed NHS criticism of the industry's record on sugar

Related tags: Public health, Low calorie sweeteners, Nutrition

A leading food and drink industry boss has slammed criticism of the sector’s record on curbing sugar levels voiced by the chief executive of the National Health Service England (NHS).

NHS boss Simon Stevens ranked obesity as the nation’s top public health challenge and described the problem as “the new smoking”. ​But food and drink manufacturers were not doing enough to reformulate products to reduce sugar to match their success with salt reduction, Stevens told the BBC TV show Andrew Marr on Sunday​ (May 31).

‘Food poisoning’

Describing high sugar levels in food and drink as tantamount to “food poisoning”, ​Stevens told the programme: “One in three of our teenagers are drinking high energy drinks,” ​he said. “I do think we are going to need reformulation to take sugar out of foods, in the same way it has happened with salt.

“If that doesn’t happen then what we are doing is a slow-burner food poisoning through all of this sugar that goes on to cause cancer, diabetes and heart disease.”

Later in the week, Stevens told the NHS Confederation conference: “I make no apology for being lippy on this topic ​[obesity reduction]. Rattle the cage and advocate something different. We need to get a big national conversation going about the role of schools, hospitals, local authorities and central government.”​  

‘Rattle the cage’

Responding to Stevens’ comments on the Andrew Marr show and others made in The Times​, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director general Ian Wright, in an open letter to the NHS boss, welcomed his encouragement for all parties, including the food industry, to play an active role in tackling obesity.

FDF slams sugar comments

“However, we believe obesity is a complex problem which cannot be reduced to the demonisation of one ingredient, nor can it be right that an everyday ingredient such as sugar is characterised as a poison.”

But added: “We believe obesity is a complex problem which cannot be reduced to the demonisation of one ingredient, nor can it be right that an everyday ingredient such as sugar is characterised as a poison.”

FDF members had for years taken “a responsible, proactive and collaborative approach”​ to public health, he added.

Part of the solution

Manufacturers were fully committed to working with government to ensure that industry was part of the solution to the obesity problem, he said.

While there was no simple answer to the complex problems of obesity; a healthy lifestyle must include both a balanced diet and physical activity. “We were proud to be a founding signatory of the Responsibility Deal and believe working in partnership has led to the quickest, and most effective, results,”​ wrote Wright.

Food and drink manufacturers had cut calories through recipe reformulations, including sugar and saturated fat reductions, to iconic products and changed portion sizes, he continued. Through the use of low calorie sweeteners, significant reformulations have been made in carbonated beverages, dairy desserts and yogurt, confectionery and table-top sweeteners.

It was important to use science accurately and “not casually overstated”,​ which would confuse consumers, he said.

Read the full text of Wright’s letter below.

FDF's open letter

Dear Simon,

Following your appearance on the Andrew Marr Show and your interview in The Times​ yesterday I wanted to register some concerns about some of your comments.

You are right to encourage all parties, including the food industry, to play an active role in tackling obesity. However, we believe obesity is a complex problem which cannot be reduced to the demonisation of one ingredient, nor can it be right that an everyday ingredient such as sugar is characterised as a poison.

We welcome the prime minister’s commitment that all parties should have an active role in tackling the problem. For many years, FDF members have taken a responsible, proactive and collaborative approach to public health. We are fully committed to working with government to ensure that industry is part of the solution. There is no simple answer to the complex problems of obesity; a healthy lifestyle must include both a balanced diet and physical activity. We were proud to be a founding signatory of the Responsibility Deal and believe working in partnership has led to the quickest, and most effective, results.

As you acknowledge, a world-leading salt reduction programme is at the forefront of these achievements, having helped reduce population intakes by 15%. We have also worked on increasing fibre, micronutrients, fruit and vegetable content in recipes and have virtually eliminated artificial trans fats in products. We have led the world for well over a decade in providing nutrition information on pack and in developing responsible marketing practices, partly captured in the EU Pledge on Responsible Marketing.

We have reduced calories through recipe reformulations, including sugar and saturated fat reductions, to iconic products and changed portion sizes. In particular, through the use of low calorie sweeteners, significant reformulations have been made in carbonated beverages, dairy desserts and yogurt, confectionery and table-top sweeteners.

The food and drink industry employs around 400,000 people. It contributes £22bn to our economy and through the taxes paid by employees and companies, plays a major part in funding the NHS. We use our world-leading technology and highly skilled employees to innovate, rising to the challenge of making healthy food more pleasurable and of making pleasurable food healthier. We self-fund three quarters of the sector’s research and development and the work we carry out in the UK creates new products and ideas which are exported around the world.

We support evidence and science-based solutions in tackling the obesity challenge. Indeed when it comes to taking action on health, companies rely on government guidance to ensure they are focusing their energies and investment in work which will bring about positive change for consumer health. This is why it is so important to us that the science is used accurately, and not casually overstated. That will only confuse the consumer. It is clear that excessive consumption of sugar can lead to overconsumption of calories and to weight gain.

We are very open to discussions on how the industry can best contribute to improve public health I would welcome the opportunity to meet you and discuss the industry’s achievements and how we can continue the process of collaboration in improving public health.

Yours sincerely,

Ian Wright

FDF, director general

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