For liquid systems such as soft drinks it is a reasonably easy technical challenge to replace sugar. This is normally done with high intensity sweeteners, water providing the bulk phase. As testament to this fact there are a plethora of sugar-reduced or no-sugar soft drinks available with low or even zero calories although some of the new product development has come as a direct result of the proposed UK soft drinks industry levy for drinks with added sugar (total sugar content >5g/100ml).
The UK is one of a small number of countries to directly address sugars in foods as a way of reducing energy intake, particularly in children’s diets.
Although sugar has become the focus of public health concern especially in sweetened soft drinks, sugar reduction in our diet is clearly not the complete answer to the nation’s obesity issues, the situation is far more complex. This has been recognised by others who have reviewed the literature and indicated that the tax tool alone on added sugars appears insufficient to curb the obesity epidemic but needs to be included in a multicomponent and comprehensive structural strategy to combat obesity.
In the meantime public health initiatives are targeting sugar reduction as an initial strategy to help combat obesity and food manufacturers are considering the most effective way of achieving these goals. When it comes to soft drinks:
“For people seeking to manage their weight tap water is without question the best drink to choose, for health and the environment, but for many people who are used to drinking sugary drinks this will be too hard a change to make…..artificially sweetened drinks are a step in the right direction to cut calories”.
What do Consumers Think?
I was reassured to read David Mitchell’s recent article in the Guardian. What I particularly enjoyed was his instinctive understanding as a consumer that “…..diet cola contains massively less sugar than a normal one. So if you have a Diet Coke instead of a Coke you will have consumed much less sugar and fewer calories”.
Losing weight may still be difficult for some, even when lower calorie or “diet” forms of popular products are available. Dr Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at Public Health England has highlighted this issue. She has said that swapping to low or no sugar drinks “goes some way to managing calorie intake and weight, especially for young people”. “However, maintaining a healthy weight takes more than just swapping one product for another,” she added. “Calories consumed should match calories used, so looking at the whole diet is very important”.
This principle is not always clear when “diet” or “light” products are promoted in isolation and out of a dietary context – unfortunately there are no magic bullets in nutrition . Perhaps the key message should be that food products, reduced-sugar or otherwise, can help to reduce weight only as part of a calorie controlled diet. In some ways this feels like a very out-dated communication – but in terms of obesity, calories still count!