The big debate around Britain's Fat Fight

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In April and May 2018, celebrity chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall was back on our screens, this time to enlighten the British population into eating more healthily. Unfolding over three episodes on the BBC, Britain’s Fat Fight offered an insight into the eating and drinking habits of Brits. I was glued to my TV screen as the chef quizzed passers-by on the sugar content of multiple soft drinks, including orange juice and Coca Cola. Members of the public were asked demonstrate how many teaspoons of sugar were hidden in their favourite soft drinks, and shocked to find out how far off they were from the true number. Fearnley-Whittingstall himself confessed that his weekly wine consumption carries the equivalent amount of sugar as 22 cans of Coca Cola. This means that over seven days, Hugh consumes 858g of sugar solely in wine, which takes up his entire week’s allowance of sugar (120g per day) without factoring in a morsel of food.

“The obesity crisis is such a huge problem, it’s hard to know where to begin,” Fearnley-Whittingstall tells The Mirror. “One thing is certain, it is not just individual action and inspiration and willpower that will turn this around.

“It’s a complex issue – it’s a bunch of developments that have conspired to make our diets very unhealthy. We need to make it completely clear that we can’t just cherry-pick a couple of those things. We have to really look at the whole food culture, the profound over-availability of these highly calorific, highly processed and hyper-palatable foods.”

Obesity rates have doubled over the past 20 years and today, it’s estimated that 63% of UK adults are overweight. For years, fat was the enemy in the war on weight, however sugar is now very much at the forefront of the row. As of April 2018, the sugar tax or Soft Drinks Industry Levy was introduced, subjecting businesses which produce, package or transport soft drinks with added sugar in the UK with a levy. While this news was welcomed by health-conscious consumers, the sugar tax excludes some sugary drinks such as fruit juices, smoothies and milk drinks.

The early stages of sugar addiction

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During his quest to educate the nation about the negative impact of sugar consumption, Hugh set a group of children free in a supermarket to do their own shopping. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they fill their trolleys with fizzy drinks, desserts, chocolates, sweets and cereal. This clearly struck a chord with Hugh, who takes issue with big-name cereal brands like Kellogg’s and Nestlé. Both companies do not use the recommended traffic-light labelling system to reveal a product’s sugar contents. Instead, the cereal kings have opted for a toned-down monochrome version.

According to a recent study by Data Label, consumers are confused by the current nutritional labelling on food and drink products. On the study, Data Label’s managing director, Philip Carlyn, said: “The traffic light system on food labels displays low, medium and high values, each of which correspond to the traditional traffic colours: green, orange and red. Simple enough to understand and follow, but this is where people get confused, because each supermarket varies the weight that this is worked on, either per 100g or per portion, which could be higher or lower than 100g, depending on the product.”

It is not only foods that need clearer labelling to help consumers understand sugar content, drinks manufacturers also get the Fearnley-Whittingstall treatment.

Although there is already a sugar tax on some soft drinks, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver have suggested that it should be extended to those not included in the levy, such as milk-based drinks, which contain up to 16 teaspoons of sugar. Industry experts also recommend that all labelling of added or ‘free’ sugars are made in teaspoons to help the public better understand how much sugar they are consuming.

Embracing low sugar options

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Like me, you may have been slightly bemused at the sight of adults’ shocked reactions to their children’s food choices. Did anyone really expect a child to choose an avocado over a bag of sweets? However it’s important to note Hugh’s efforts to highlight the sheer volume of sugar hidden in many of our favourite drinks, even ‘healthy’ options aimed at adults. Many smoothies, while claiming to be one of your five a day and ‘packed full of fruit’, contain more sugar than a can of Coca Cola.

Just as we learned to understand the difference between fat and saturated fat, and embrace the good fats, we must recognise that added sugar (not naturally found within a fresh product, such as fruit) is an extra that we do not need.

There is one way where consumers can recognise whether the choice they are making is a good one or not, and that is by looking for the blue Sugarwise label. Sugarwise, developed by Rend Platings, is an international marque that independently verifies whether products are sugar-free, low in sugar, have no added sugar or reduced sugar. If you see this you can be reassured that you are making a healthier choice.

Initiatives such as this and Hugh’s valiant attempts to educate the nation about their consumption of sugar, including in alcohol, will no doubt help in Britain’s Fat Fight. However it’s also important to note some of the low sugar or no-sugar options available, which are equally delicious, and can even offer an alternative to your usual sugar-laden cocktail after work on a Friday.

Cocktail aficionados don’t have to give up their beloved gin and tonics (provided you use the right mixers such as Fever-Tree’s slimline tonic), or the classic Martini, or even mojitos, if you use an alternative to sugar such as stevia or honey. Vodka and gin are your best bets when it comes to drinking low-sugar alcoholic beverages. But be aware of the mixers you choose. Soda water and fresh fruits are an excellent way of flavouring cocktails without adding any sugar.

I’m so pleased to see the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver championing low sugar options and educating the nation. But I hope we can maintain a positive attitude by continuing to be innovative about the way we approach low sugar foods and drinks. We should be looking at celebrating natural food that is good for us rather than denying ourselves the sugary treats we have become so reliant upon.