Speakers: Katharine Teague, Head of Advocacy, AB Sugar and Julia Manning, Chief Executive, 2020health
19th January 2016 – meeting notes
All-Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood
Chair: Baroness Benjamin
Baroness Benjamin welcomed the attendees and introduced the speakers.
AB sugar is one of the world’s largest sugar suppliers, from beet in the northern hemisphere to cane in the southern.
We know more about our ingredient and invest more heavily in investigating and understanding sugar and its effects on the body than anyone else.
We have 4 UK factories that are worth £1 billion to the UK economy, employing 14,000 across the supply chain.
- In the last 20 years there has been no increase in sugar production
- In the EU consumption has not increased
- The latest figures from DEFRA suggest that it is going down
- As a company we are very transparent
Sugar is 4 calories a gram.
We understand the obesity debate. In 2014 we developed www.makingsenseofsugar.com with the aim of getting the facts to the consumers, explaining all sugars. We want to be part of the discussion; we understand our responsibilities to the farmers, the supply chain and customers. When I refer to sugar, I mean the stuff in your sugar bowl, not all the other sugars that have become included in the debate. The website does explain all these other sugars though.
We are constantly looking to engage and have been working with nutrition UK, organisations such as 2020 health and learning more about nutrition. We are transparent about the research and information out there.
For our last report Fat Chance: Exploring the evidence of who becomes obese, we looked at the evidence of who becomes obese. It is a complex area and there is a lack of information or detail on obesity. Equally, there are no simple solutions.
Looking at the detail and the complex factors, it is not just a case of socio-economic deprivation. We looked at the causes, associations and the choice architecture in people’s lives. We looked at the gaps in knowledge and pulled out over 1,000 papers researching obesity. We used 100 which looked at the lived experience. We wanted to explore the gaps in obesity knowledge and intelligently and meaningfully examine the existing information. To be effective, we need an obesity strategy which takes into account the research that is out there.
Built environments; a lack of green space impacts on choice (particularly with girls) structural characteristics; a sense of safety from traffic and crime to pavement quality have a positive link to a lower BMI. Those neighbourhoods’ characteristics affect more adult women than men. You need to know the environment for which you are creating the strategy.
This is not just a problem for children from less well off backgrounds. Poverty and deprivation and being in a low socio-economic group is correlated to obesity. Hot spots of obesity exist in both wealthy and poorer areas. Disadvantage is a risk factor.
Other factors also contribute, such as bullying and child abuse, research shows a link between childhood trauma and obesity.
Ethnicity, especially amongst women and girls is a factor. Research shows that conditions related to obesity (such as diabetes and CHD) in groups such as Afro Caribbeans. We need to consider obesity strategies in areas with higher ethnic groups, especially women.
We want to see obesity strategies that are radical and hard-hitting and reflect the evidence. We recommend that the strategies align with holistic and coordinated cross departmental approaches as well as national and local delivery. In addition, we would recommend that the role of schools in promoting health literacy and healthy behaviour be recognised.
Baroness Benjamin: We agree with a lot of what you have said. There may be a lot of different causes of obesity, but we have a problem, there might be various reasons for it, but the main reason is that there is a lot of sugar in foods. The amount people have is of concern to this group.
Katharine Teague: It would be good to understand what the foods are that people are eating. We have started to notice that it is not well understood what people mean by using the term “sugar”.
Baroness Benjamin: People are doing less exercise and other factors, but people are still eating more. It is not what you eat; it is how much you eat.
Julia Manning: There is a lack of understanding; the way that the body processes food is not as straightforward as we think it is. Sugars are not distributed in food, overweight person is more likely to store fat and put on weight, than someone who is underweight. Obesity is also an environment issue.
Education is the key because people need to understand the way that sugars work in the body.
In terms of the link with trauma, did the research uncover any association with leptin/endocrinology?
Julia Manning: No, consensus is that there is not an association. The focus on this ingredient is not helping the debate. We are not going to get positive outcomes unless we consider original ideas and evidence. Calories need to be understood.
Katharine Teague: There is a vast catalogue of scientific research on that area, which I can forward to you. The things that are going to make a real difference in this debate (children’s activity etc) are lost with the focus on one main ingredient. We won’t get the outcomes we want unless we discuss the other issues.
Products are being created with fewer calories; we should be getting back to the notion of calories in and calories out.
Baroness Benjamin: Play is something that we have talked about, especially in our play report. We have been holistic, you are absolutely right.
I agree with all the other factors highlighted, but we need to understand that children are eating more sugary foods; this is a fundamental problem with intake. Portion sizes and regularity of sugar intake has to be considered in addition to the issue of less movement. There is a fundamental problem with the intake of sugar for children. Children are eating portion sizes comparable to their parents.
Katharine Teague: Per head we are eating less of total sugar in the last 20 years. Both reports by 2020 Health have found this; the statistics are not saying that the weight issue is just sugar. There has not been an increase in the production of sugar. This is why makingsenseofsugar.com exists. There is a need to understand labels that have “sugars” but labelling does not show up “sugars” as sugars are not added to the product. Yes we are eating too much, but the stats are not saying it is all about sugar.
Pre-packaged foods contain sugars. There is no white sugar in a pre-packaged lasagne, no ‘teaspoons of sugar’. I think that is really important for people to understand in this discussion. We have worked hard in labelling and we need to further clarify things so that consumers can make informed choices.
Can the speakers confirm that as there is a need to we should reduce sugar consumption? Which of the 4 mechanisms should we use to achieve that?
Katharine Teague: On the second question; whichever one has the best evidence that it will reduce obesity. Currently the evidence is not available on some of the suggestions. On the first questions, we must remember that sugar has been being reduced, since 2001 UK consumption of sugar has been reducing. People need to understand this.
Julia Manning: If you are eating too much sugar at the moment, you should eat less. It depends on who you are.
In answer to the second question The Responsibility Deal has contributed to reformulation and repackaging and other positive steps towards helping people to eat less. This is something that the government should encourage. Perhaps making it mandatory.
In terms of taxation, the experience of Mexico, it is actually a soda tax, on sugared drinks and it has increased the cost of these drinks only at the supermarket, so it is now cheaper to buy bottled water in a supermarket, but only in supermarkets.
They also brought in a tax on snacks, those larger than 250grams.
Katharine Teague: You want formulated products that reduce calories. Sometimes reformulation of products increases calories. This has to be understood in whatever goes forward.
The battle is lost, a tax will happen, we are keen to see how best these funds (from a tax) can be used., perhaps investing in nutritional advice, exercise programmes and the like.
Katharine Teague: AB Sugar does not produce an end product, we are an ingredient manufacturer. So for us makingsenseofsugar is the first foray into consumer education.
We should highlight the role of sugar in dental decay, 250,000 children undergo general anaesthetic because of tooth decay. Labelling needs to be clear and allow people to understand it properly
Katharine Teague: I would be interested to see the evidence behind that. The science on fermentable carbohydrates has changed recently. On the web site we have lists of foods with and without sugars.
Baroness Benjamin: I think what you are saying to us about certain types of food containing “white sugar” is very useful. We would appreciate more information on this area.
Katherine Teague: we do not want people to be frightened, people are being made to think that there is something stealthily hidden in food and drink that will be dangerous to their children.
What are the estimates of the effect of a possible sugar tax on your business?
Katherine Teague: The trend is downward, for us as an industry we produce against demand. As a commodity market, sugar is not just used for what we eat; there are many more complex ways in which our ingredient is used. The future is still positive.
What do you make of the PHE work on “free sugars” from last year’s SACN report?
Katharine Teague: We understand that the government and PHE are still to clarify that definition. We need to look at the evidence and the eventual definition of “free sugars”
From the point of view of PHE labelling is not clear: there are lots of different names for sugar. We need to help parents to understand what these are. Parents are so confused all the time, we need to help them to understand what is on the label.
Katharine Teague: All sugars are taken into the body the same way, according to scientists. We need to go back to basics and look at how to get people to make more informed choices. That is one of the reasons why we have the web site; everything on the site is where the current consensus is on the science today.
The main source of sugar in a child’s diet is carbonated drinks. What is the potential influence of AB Sugar on producers? What do you think of the Change for Life smart sugar app?
Katharine Teague: We have our scientists work alongside our customers on 3 areas: safety, formulation and reformulation, we are committed to these. Business world guidelines means that we do not influence unduly, so we cannot do more than this.
On the point about the Change for Life app, some of the products which bring up the “sugar cubes” do not have sugar added to them.
Does it matter to obesity and dental care if it is fructose or added sugar?
It does, there are scientific reasons for why it does matter.
PHE is putting out stats that an average child is consuming, in a year, a huge amount of sugar. The presentation has been a little confusing.
Katharine Teague: Constantly returning to sugar cubes is not accurate because sugars come from different sources.
The meeting closed at this point.