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Food Labelling (Sugar Content)

Volume 580: debated on Wednesday 14 May 2014

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that sugar content on food labelling be represented in terms of the number of 5ml spoonsful per 100g; and for connected purposes.

The intention of the Bill is simple: to have the number of teaspoons of sugar contained in a food product clearly displayed on the front of the packaging. I declare my interest as a type 2 diabetic. I am glad to see the Minister responsible for public health and the shadow Minister responsible for public health in their places today.

Sugar is a killer. High-sugar diets are the main contributor to two of the most serious health risks facing the United Kingdom today: obesity and diabetes. People are simply not aware of the amount of sugar they are eating. Our annual sugar intake is 33.7 kg per capita, which is equivalent to eating nearly 34 average-sized bags of sugar each year. That is 15.4 kg higher than the world average and the United Kingdom is the 18th largest consumer of sugar in the world.

The dangers of sugar have been known for many years, but fragmented regulation and successive Governments’ reluctance to act have led to a distinct lack of progress. In 1972, John Yudkin wrote a fascinating book entitled “Pure, White and Deadly”. As the name suggests, the book presents a startling account of how sugar is killing us, addresses why people are so addicted to it and explains that if we do not change our habits we face a crisis. Seen as controversial at the time, Mr Yudkin’s text was bought back into print in 2012 with a foreword from childhood obesity expert Dr Robert Lustig, who viewed the book as prophetic. It seems that there is and has been for many years a widespread desire to remain ignorant of the dangers of sugar, perhaps in the hope that they will cease to exist.

The UK is facing an epidemic of diabetes and obesity. The statistics are alarming. Each year, 59,000 people die unnecessarily as a result. Obesity and diabetes-related illnesses combined cost the NHS an estimated £15 billion a year. Health and nutrition experts involved in Action on Sugar led by Professor Graham MacGregor and Dr Aseem Malhotra recently met and warned the Secretary of State that the cost is likely to rise to £50 billion a year. For diabetes, 80% of the available funding is spent treating preventable complications. If the number of people with diabetes continues to rise at the current rate, it is estimated that in 10 years’ time 5 million British people will have diabetes.

It is clear that, contrary to what Mary Poppins promised, a spoonful of sugar will not help the medicine go down; it will result in people needing more and more medicines. There is a huge knock-on effect of eating too much sugar, given that diabetes and obesity increase vulnerability to other health conditions. In an article in The Spectator, Dr Max Pemberton said:

“As a doctor . . . I’d rather have HIV than diabetes.”

Comparing HIV to my own condition really brought home its severity. Dr Pemberton believes that diabetes sufferers and those treating them are complacent about the condition because of a lack of communication about its dangers. Dr Charles Alessi, chair of the National Association of Primary Care, and Professor John Deanfield of University College London warned recently about the higher risks of diabetes sufferers getting dementia.

The responsibility deal was introduced by the Government in 2011, with the aim of reducing calorie intake by 5 billion a year. Although many companies signed up to the voluntary pledge, there is no legal responsibility to act on their words. Sugar is not even mentioned as one of the benchmarks. Binding legislation, together with the inclusion of sugar labelling, would be much more effective. The Government have acknowledged the huge costs that knock-on health issues caused by excessive sugar consumption bring to the NHS. However, there is no clear action plan towards achieving these laudable aims.

Many retailers make a huge contribution to the problem. For example, WH Smith should be ashamed of itself for forcing its staff to harass customers at the counter to purchase endless chocolate bars. Let us take my weekly stop at junction 15 on the M1 at the Welcome Break in the constituency of the hon. Member for Northampton North (Michael Ellis). There, an embarrassed shop assistant offers me two chocolate bars for the price of one each time I buy a newspaper. Lidl, to give it credit, has removed sweets from the checkout. I am delighted to tell the House that last week our Tea Room offered only fruit as the last stop before the till, after years of there being only chocolate on offer.

There is still more that retailers can do. Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons should lead the way with their own brands offering more no-sugar alternatives. They should also bring in clearer signage in supermarkets, which could focus the minds of shoppers on purchasing healthier products. There should be better layout in shops. Fixtures such as carousels should display only sugar-free products, as is currently done for gluten-free, kosher and sometimes halal foods. That would help busy people locate healthier options much more quickly.

Let us all take one more step in the war on sugar and commit to one sugar-free day a week. When I asked the Prime Minister to do this, as the House may recall, he said he would attempt to do this after asking Mrs Cameron. I intend to table a parliamentary question to see how he fared.

Labelling of food and drinks has improved. All packaged products are required to display a list of fat, saturated fat, calories and carbohydrates in grams, with the percentage of the recommended daily allowance that that constitutes. Many companies, such as Waitrose, have adopted a traffic light system on the front of packaging to allow customers easily to see how healthy a product is by the colour. However, products marketed as low-fat often have a very high sugar content to compensate for the flavour lost in the reduction of fat. A typical low-fat yoghurt contains five teaspoons of sugar, muesli can contain eight teaspoons, a can of coke contains seven teaspoons and a caramel frappuccino sold in cafés near the House contains around 11 teaspoons of sugar. Mr Speaker, could you imagine eating a stack of 11 sugar cubes as you sit in the Chair today, or this week when your and your son Oliver’s beloved Arsenal seek to win their first silverware in nine years? Imagine eating 11 cubes of sugar as you watch that final at Wembley.

I commend newspapers such as The Times and The Daily Express for producing special pull-out charts with information on how many teaspoons of sugar there are in each product. Every household should have such a chart. The main problem with our existing system is that the information on the back of packaging is so small. Unless people are like Gillian McKeith and are attentive to the contents of everything they consume, they are not likely to go around the supermarket with a magnifying glass and a calculator to check the contents of a product. It is not realistic to expect people to work out that one sugar cube weighs around 2.3 grams and to calculate how much sugar a product contains. Sugar labelling with a clear teaspoon sign fills a void that currently exists in people’s understanding. It will expose how much sugar is in each product.

Our country is facing an epidemic as a result of excessive high-sugar diets. People must wake up to the dangers of this addictive and poisonous foodstuff before it is too late. Reforming packaging could help millions of people to improve their health, extend their lives and manage existing medical conditions, and significantly reduce costs to the NHS. Sugar is toxic. It is essential that we act, and I hope the House will support this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.


That Keith Vaz, Caroline Lucas, Mark Durkan, Ann Clwyd, Jim Shannon, Sarah Champion, Dr Julian Huppert, Neil Carmichael, Phil Wilson, Mark Pritchard, Valerie Vaz and Michael Fabricant present the Bill.

Keith Vaz accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow and to be printed (Bill 210).