The spotlight in the fight over sugar is on the UK this month. Ben Cooper considers what appears to be an important stage in the battle.

If 2014 can reasonably be dubbed the 'Year of Sugar', this week could well be the biggest week of the year so far.

On Sunday (22 June) UK campaign group Action on Sugar launched its Childhood Obesity Action Plan, advocating seven policies to address childhood obesity, including two measures targeted at sugar: Reducing added sugars by 40% by 2020 by reformulation, and a sugar tax.

Meanwhile, the UK Government's Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) publishes its draft report on 'Carbohydrates and Health' on Thursday.

Among the impacts being considered by SACN will be the contribution sugar makes to obesity and illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes. The publication of its report will be followed by a nine-week consultation.

The debate over how to tackle obesity and diet-related health issues, and how food and drinks producers are either contributing to the problem or the solution, has evolved in recent years. A few years ago, discussion was around HFSS (high in fat, salt or sugar) foods, or even more generally around calorie density. While concern remains high about salt levels in food, there has been progress, thanks in no small part to industry efforts. Meanwhile, the discussion of the precise dietary value of fats has undoubtedly become more nuanced. The debate has therefore focused to a significant degree on sugar, as events this year have underlined.

Sugar is now arguably being cast as the irredeemable villain of the piece, not only in the UK but elsewhere. This is not great news for soft drinks producers, which clearly have far more exposure to sugar than to the other two nutrients of concern.

The launch of Action on Sugar in the UK in January set the tone, and was quickly followed by the announcement of a new draft guideline from the World Health Organization (WHO), proposing that the guideline intake for sugars be lowered from less than 10% of energy intake to below 5%.

The campaign group's latest intervention stemmed from a meeting with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt in April, when it said it was asked to put together its proposals.

Through its Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD), the UK Government has sought consensus-based approaches to policy on food and diet, engaging public health activists and industry. This policy has been branded a sop to industry by campaigners and, in general, industry groups have participated more actively.

Notably, and particularly significant in light of where the debate has moved on sugar, campaigners have been concerned that the PHRD does not include a specific sugar reduction pledge, whereas it does include undertakings to reduce saturated fats and salt.

The seven policy initiatives recommended by Action on Sugar include some more general, well-rehearsed gripes that campaigners have made little ground on for years, including recommendations on TV advertising, sponsorship and portion sizes.

The sugar tax question always grabs headlines, although the response from the popular press is generally hostile. In the UK, and particularly in the US, the soft drinks sector has opposed such taxes fervently and, through heavyweight lobbying, has thus far prevailed. When Coca-Cola Enterprises CEO John Brock said last week that the industry is now in a better position to oppose such taxes, he was right but, in truth, it was already doing quite a good job.

While there has been discussion of a sugar tax in the UK for some time, and rumours that this government has been considering it, there is some fairly heavyweight academic opinion, backed up by modelling research, which casts doubt on the effectiveness of such taxes in driving down obesity.

More crucially, perhaps, they are unappealing politically. In spite of the rumours, and the public backing of a sugar tax by UK Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies earlier this year, this government has said it will not introduce such a tax.

Next year is an election year, and the opposition Labour party has said it also would not introduce a sugar tax. Labour's position speaks not only to the political risks inherent in sin taxes but also to another weakness. As a flat-rate tax levied at point of sale, a sugar tax would be regressive and penalise the worse off.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats - the latter of whom forms the Coalition Government with the Conservatives - would prefer a different solution, which brings the discussion back to sugar reduction by reformulation. Of all seven policies in the Action on Sugar plan, some form of sugar reduction pledge may prove the most compelling to policymakers across the political spectrum.

That the plan resulted from a meeting with Jeremy Hunt, where the minister sought the group's ideas, is significant. The Government wants the PHRD to work, and to work effectively - and remain credible - it has to have engagement from both sides. By the same token, criticism from NGOs undermines the policy. One senses that the Government will have to give Action on Sugar something.

There is a very good reason why Action on Sugar is trumpeting a 40% added sugar reduction by 2020. The campaign was spawned from Consensus Action on Salt (CASH), which had considerable success in pushing companies to drive down salt levels in processed food.

Action on Sugar hails the UK salt campaign, which saw salt intake in the UK fall by 15% between 2001 and 2011, as "one of the most successful nutritional policies in the UK since the Second World War". Applying this model to sugar has been the principal focus for the campaign since its launch.

Health professionals believe consumers could, at least to some degree, be weaned off their high-sugar diets in much the same way. Currently, the only means by which the levels of sugar in processed foods can be addressed through the PHRD is through the broad calorie reduction pledge, which campaigners hold to be woefully insufficient. 

While policy interventions around taxation and advertising are fraught with political hurdles, pushing companies for more specific undertakings on sugar reduction would carry less political risk. It also fits with the Government's consensus-based approach and has proven to be effective with salt.

Industry advocates have been able to edge the debate away from a sugar reduction pledge by championing their commitment on calorie reduction. As the Year of Sugar continues, that will become increasingly difficult. Action on Sugar has gained traction as the year has progressed and will continue pushing.

We have not heard the last on sugar in 2014.

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