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Volume 738: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what data they have on, or what best estimate they can give of, the extent to which the consumption of sugar will contribute to the substantial increase predicted in the incidence of diabetes in England and Wales.

My Lords, the Government currently cannot provide an estimate of the extent to which sugar intake will lead to future incidence of diabetes in England and Wales, because, on balance, there is no clear evidence that sugar intake alone specifically causes diabetes. Obesity increases the risk of type 2 diabetes. The habitual consumption of calories in excess of needs for a healthy body weight results in weight gain, irrespective of whether these are from sugar or fat.

My Lords, by 2050, on current trends, at least half of adults and a quarter of children are predicted to be obese, which will cause a huge epidemic of diabetes. Many experts agree that the excessive consumption of sugar is a factor in obesity and in diabetes. In fact, US scientists have concluded that sugar consumption levels are now so harmful that sugar should be controlled and taxed in the same way as alcohol and tobacco. Will the Minister give urgent consideration to taxing sugar in processed foods to help avert an imminent public health disaster?

My Lords, we keep the question of taxation under review in the light of emerging international evidence on its impact. That will include looking at the experience of the recently introduced tax on saturated fat in Denmark and what effect it has had on diet and health. With any fiscal measure, there is always a risk of unintended consequences, so we would have to look at this particularly carefully.

My Lords, did the Minister have a chance to see the report from the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, published earlier this month, which suggested that if obesity levels could be reduced, there would be sufficient food for 1 billion people worldwide. The report pointed particularly to the United States of America and at western Europe. Does this not both justify the Government’s campaign to reduce obesity and illustrate the truth of Gandhi’s remark that there is sufficient in this world for people’s needs but not for their greeds?

I agree fully with the noble Lord. In this area, the message has to be that a healthy balanced diet is what we should all aspire to. As I mentioned in my initial Answer, obesity is one of the prime drivers for diabetes. If people can moderate their calorie intake to match their energy consumption, the world will be a healthier place.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that increased sugar consumption leads to obesity and, in my view, diabetes. Is he also aware of the many studies, including one from Princeton University, which show that sugar is potentially addictive and activates endorphins in the brain in a way similar to heroin—I could hardly put down my Jaffa Cake long enough to come and ask this question. Does he not agree that it is important to look at research that shows that scientists have made rats sugar-addicted in just one month by feeding them sugared drinks? Will he revisit the nutritional standards for schools, because 62% of British schools currently do not have tough nutritional guidelines that would reduce sugar consumption among British children?

My Lords, I am aware of that research, which my department is looking at very carefully, but I should put a health warning on it in that we do not yet accept the conclusion that sugar is addictive, although clearly in the case of young children those who get into the habit of consuming sugar are likely to continue doing so, so the noble Baroness is quite right that it is a risk factor in the young. The advice from the School Food Trust is of course to have a healthy diet at school. Many schools are adhering to that, and we are doing our best to promote that with our colleagues in the Department for Education.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned unexpected consequences. Does he agree that people who are afraid of eating too much sugar because they might get fat will turn to sugar substitutes such as aspartame? Is he aware that aspartame contains 10% methanol, which, uniquely in the human body, is turned into formaldehyde and has its own neurological hazards? Would he recommend having sugar or sweeteners?

My Lords, the Department of Health recognises that artificially sweetened or low-calorie drinks can play a role in helping people to reduce the number of calories they consume and offer a wide choice of low-calorie options. As for the safety of artificial sweeteners, all food additives, including sweeteners, are thoroughly tested for safety prior to approval and are subject to review by independent expert bodies. The Food Standards Agency considers that all approved sweeteners can be safely consumed at current permitted levels.

My Lords, this morning I was in a Waitrose and I looked at all the packets of cereals. Each one had a different sugar-based flavour, such as chocolate and apricot, and all the cereals contained sugar of different kinds. What is the Minister’s reaction to that?

My noble friend draws attention to an area of concern. Cereals of that kind are particularly attractive to children, although I would say that the good news here is that added sugar consumption among children has fallen during the past few years, which is perhaps a sign that the messages on the levels of sugar that children can safely consume is getting through to parents.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl for reminding us that a small reduction in weight maintained over time can reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. I must admit that I wish that I knew that when I stopped smoking and piled on the weight. As a consequence, I am type 2 diabetic. It is true that small improvements in eating and drinking habits can reduce the risk. I ask the noble Earl, as I asked him last November, whether the Government will take this threat seriously and undertake to lead a major awareness programme about what to do to avoid type 2 diabetes.

My Lords, there is a great deal going on in this extremely important area. I am grateful to the noble Lord for emphasising its importance. There is a ring-fenced budget for public health, and weight gain is one of the key indicators in the public health outcomes framework. There is the Change for Life campaign, which has, I think, gained enormous credibility among the public and professionals. We are engaging with the food industry through the public health responsibility deal to take forward the calorie reduction pledge. There are NHS health check programmes, which are being rolled out throughout the country, and at GP level there are the nine tests which GPs are advised to undertake with diabetic patients. The rate at which those tests are being done has gone up very encouragingly over the past few years.