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Children’s Health: Sugar

Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 12 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of sugar on children’s health.

The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition undertook a comprehensive assessment of sugar intake and health in its 2015 report Carbohydrates and Health. In 2023, it looked specifically at children aged one to five. SACN concluded that reducing the intake of sugar would lower the risk of tooth decay and weight gain in children and adolescents. The Government have an ambitious programme to reduce children’s sugar intake, which includes the soft drinks industry levy.

I thank the Minister for his reply. One area where the Government have failed to take the action they should is to encourage the industry to reformulate food more than it is doing at the moment—to take out sugar and substitute the alternative, organic, healthy sweeteners that are available. Would the Government look into this and do some more work? Would they be prepared to invite companies that are willing to enter public/private partnerships to start doing that?

First, I recognise all the work the noble Lord does in this space. Secondly, I completely agree that reformulation is the big prize as part of this. The House will remember me mention before that Mars, Galaxy, Bounty and Snickers have all reformulated their food, as has Mr Kipling and his “exceedingly good” cakes—they are compliant cakes as well. There is a lot being done here, but there is more to do. We meet the industry all the time and are very happy doing so.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, in Canada, thousands of children have been fed on whole milk for many years, and their problems with obesity do not exist? The food industry has deliberately promoted a low-fat diet. It is a lousy diet that tastes horrible; that is why they have had to shovel in such vast quantities of sugar. Could the Minister ensure that the Department of Health no longer advocates a low-fat diet? Fat going into the duodenum acts on the stomach, making it empty more slowly and therefore giving the feeling that the patient has had enough.

I think one of the things that, hopefully, I have learned in the almost year that I have been answering Questions is when I know the answer to a question and when I do not. I am afraid this is one of the examples of the latter. I will happily look up the Canadian example of the use of whole milk and write to the noble Lord on it.

My Lords, I declare my interests, as recorded in the register. I was very pleased to hear the Minister refer to the soft drinks industry levy, which has been a very successful way of reducing sugar consumption in soft drinks. Therefore, do the Government have plans to extend that levy to other products that contain a lot of sugar? That would be a very effective way of reducing sugar consumption.

The noble Lord is correct; that has been a success story. Overall, we have seen a 46% reduction of sugar, while at the same time sales of drinks in that category have gone up by 21%—that is 60%-plus if you combine the two. We are now looking at other moves that can help. The movement of product positioning to remove the so-called “pester power” is a key step forward in this. Of all the modelling that has been done, that is the thing that it is thought will reduce calories by the most—by 96%. That is the current focus; it has been in place for almost a year and early evidence is that it is working, but as ever we must keep everything under review.

My Lords, for the 4 million children in food poverty, the quality of their school lunch is crucial to their health and development. But the school food standard has not been reviewed since 2014, and nobody checks whether schools are adhering to it anyway. With so many children going hungry, is it not time that the standard of school food was brought up to date with the latest research on the impact of sugar and other nutrients?

The noble Baroness is absolutely correct. What we give children in schools is a key thing that the Government can affect. That is why I am delighted that the level of free school meals, at 33%, is the highest on record, making sure that they have good nutritious food. But the noble Baroness is correct: there was a review taking place in 2019, which was one of the casualties of Covid. I know that it is now one of the things that we are thinking, as we recover from Covid, that we need to look at again.

My Lords, the Minister has spoken passionately about reducing the intake of sugar by younger people. Are His Majesty’s Government intending to admit obese children with type 2 diabetes to the two-year pilot study of the new drug Wegovy?

My understanding—and I will confirm this afterwards—is that, to begin with, always with these sorts of treatments, you want to make sure that you are doing it in a safer type of environment. Generally, having adults doing it is a better place to start. Clearly, if that works the way we think, and we can trust that it will work, then you have opportunities to expand beyond that. The other thing I would like to say on this is that, actually, an active life is very important—activity and sports are a very important component of this. Interestingly, it has been shown that an active life increases life expectancy by one to two years, so that is an important feature in all this as well.

My Lords, as a design technology teacher now teaching food nutrition as well, can I ask whether, rather than sugars, of which the risks are well known, the Government will update NHS advice on ultra-processed food, particularly its website? These seem to pose a much higher risk to health, particularly as they are often marketed as the healthy option.

Many noble Lords will recall the Question we had on this before. It is the actual ingredients that are the problem. Ultra-processed foods, in and of themselves, are not a good definition because bread is an example of an ultra-processed food. The problem is that many of these are high in fat, sugar and salt, and that is what we need to be tackling. That is what we are going after, not the definition of ultra-processed foods per se.

My Lords, the Minister has told us previously that the Government are going slow on their ban on junk food advertising because they want to give time to manufacturers to reformulate their products. For many of us, this is disappointing because, as long as the food continues to be advertised, there will be excessive consumption. Could the Minister give us a progress update, so that we can get to the point where these foods, which are bad for health, will no longer be promoted—particularly in front of children?

Yes, as I mentioned previously, our modelling shows that roughly 95% of the calorific reduction that we are expecting will come from the movement of the product positioning. The evidence, almost at the end of the first year, is that this is working. Effectively, the category of non-high HFSS products has gone up by about 16% while products high in fat, sugar and salt have gone down. We know that supermarkets are taking the lead in doing this voluntarily, in terms of the so-called BOGOF, or “buy one get one free”, promotions. Tesco and Sainsbury’s have already stopped that on a voluntary basis and, as I mentioned earlier, the companies are also reformulating their foods. There is a lot of progress in a lot of areas.

My Lords, children from the most deprived areas are four times more likely to be obese and three times more likely to have dental decay than those in the least deprived, with sugar as a key contributor to poor health and future prospects. Does the Minister agree that targeting excessive sugar intake at earlier stages will have more impact on the more deprived communities and, if so, how do the Government propose to do this?

Yes, the noble Baroness is absolutely correct, and that is why in the major conditions survey we have an ambition to reduce sugar intake by 20%, working right across the board and especially with baby food manufacturers. As I set out earlier, there are a range of things that we have already done: the sugar tax reduced intake by 46%, and the movement of the so-called “pester power” has made a big impact. We are seeing companies reformulate food. But it is something we will keep under review, and we will do more if we need to.

My Lords, I declare my interest as the president of the British Fluoridation Society. Coming to oral health, is he alarmed at the number of intensive dental treatments that children need because of the rise in decay? Could he update the House on any speed up in fluoridation schemes?

The noble Lord is absolutely correct. As many are aware, the most common reason for six to 10 year-olds to go into an A&E visit is tooth decay. The noble Lord will recall that we passed an SI quite recently expanding opportunities for water fluoridisation. I know that is now increasing and I will happily follow up with the detail in writing.