The media and food press in January make a habit of playing on the post-Christmas guilt of its readers, packing its columns with information on the latest dietary fads. It also provides an excellent opportunity for food campaigners to promote their ‘doomsday’ scenarios about the nation’s diet. It seems that, in terms of public debate at least, sugars may now be beginning to usurp saturated fats as the ‘devil’ behind the rising levels of obesity and poor health in the general population.
January is traditionally the month of guilt-ridden ‘detox’, thousands flocking to enrol at the gym, orderly queues forming outside the local ‘Weight Watchers’ meeting rather than the other ‘local’ and, as ever, the media ready with lots of great ideas to help with the four weeks of self-flagellation.
This fevered atmosphere provides very fertile territory for food campaigning groups to promote their views about the poor state of the national diet and their radical solutions for squaring up to these challenges.
The National Obesity Forum (NOF) used the opportunity of 'National Obesity Awareness Week' to launch of the 'State of the Nation's Waistline' report, suggesting that the prediction that half the UK could be obese by 2050 were proving to be an underestimate and the government’s current healthy eating initiatives were failing.
The Grocer challenged the conclusions of the NOF report and their position was supported by a statement from the UK Health Forum, which accused the report of exaggeration. This led to the NOF conceding that their conclusions were based on anecdotal evidence rather than robust statistical analysis – so not even a case of ‘lies, damned lies and statistics’.
A more reliable statistical source 'Family Food 2012' published by DEFRA suggested that, whilst total consumption of calories per person has declined since 2007, consumption of fruit and vegetables has fallen, but consumption of alcohol has moved in the opposite direction.
As the meat industry knows only too well, consumption of fats and saturated fats, in particular, have been and remain a target for both government and food campaigners in their endeavours to move the population to ‘healthier diets’ and reduce levels of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
In recent times, there has been a growing view that it is the increased consumption of sugar and refined carbohydrates which has been a more significant factor behind rising obesity levels in the last 30 years – consumption of both fats and saturated fats have actually declined over the same period. A paper published last October in the British Medical Journal ('Saturated fat is not the major issue') put a convincing case to support this view and, undoubtedly, made uncomfortable reading for those who have sought to demonise saturated fats so vociferously for many years.
The campaign group Action on Sugar recently launched a report suggesting that sugar is “the new tobacco”. This was followed by a report in the Sunday Times that five out of the eight members of a specialist committee of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition had direct links with the food industry. This theme was also taken up by a Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ documentary ('Are you addicted to sugar?'). The food industry response was contained in a press release issued by the Food & Drink Federation. Roll on February.