Thirty years ago, one of the top-selling songs was White Lines (Don’t Do It) which warned young people about the dangers of cocaine. That song should be re-released today, but this time damning the white lines of sugar which are poisoning us all.
Tackling our obesity epidemic is draining the UK economy. Britain is spending £47bn a year dealing with the healthcare and social costs of an increasingly overweight population and obesity is a bigger burden on the economy than armed violence, war and terrorism.
Yet we seem to be turning a blind eye to the sugar pushers – food manufacturers who hide teaspoons of sugar in soup and yoghurts, entice children with calorific cartoon character cereals and have completely distorted our sense of what a normal portion size is.
As director of Team Activ, a social enterprise which delivers sport and PE in primary and secondary schools in Barnsley, I’m passionate about getting kids fit for life. We provide sporting opportunities for thousands of kids and engage them in sport to give them a love of exercise which will stay with them through life. But food manufacturers are unravelling all our good work.
We don’t need sugar. It has no nutritional value, doesn’t make us feel full but is a major cause of obesity and diabetes. Yet food manufacturers insist we eat more of it and even when we try to refuse, it’s hidden in so-called healthy food.
All kids deserve a treat, but portion sizes have spiralled out of control because everything now is ‘max’, ‘chunky’, or ‘sharing’ size. A few years ago, they sold a lolly with 41 calories – it’s now been rebranded as a “mega double lolly” with a whopping 124 calories.
Critics may say parents can choose not to buy these snacks, but in their defence, parents are also being hampered when they buy normal store cupboard basics. So-called healthy foods are packed with sugar such as the zero per cent fat yogurt with five teaspoons of sugar per 150g, the pasta sauce with six teaspoons of sugar per jar and the tomato soup with five teaspoons per can.
At breakfast children are lured by cartoon adverts to eat sugary cereals or to spread chocolate and even marshmallow on toast. Even when parents try to offer healthy food, they are thwarted by bread packed with salt or flavoured milk with scoops of sugar.
Parents are duped by misleading ingredients. Cereals labelled wholegrain can be full of sugar and empty calories with only a small amount of fibre while sugar can be disguised as high fructose corn syrup. Mums and dads buy low-fat food, thinking they are being healthy, but they don’t realise it’s packed with sugar to improve the flavour.
We can’t expect parents to be nutritional experts who have hours on end to spend analysing and understand food labels in shops. I’ve never met a parent who wants an obese child, yet mums and dads are facing an uphill struggle to feed their kids healthily.
Parents are working longer hours than ever before, commuting further and many don’t have the time to prepare a home-cooked dish from scratch every meal time. Even when parents cook their own meals, they are misled. A mum making jacket potato with coleslaw or beans would be horrified at the amount of sugar manufacturers put in those two toppings.
I’m not alone in this tirade against the sugar pushers. Dr Sally Norton, a leading NHS surgeon, says food manufacturers can’t sit back and see the obesity crisis worsen. And recently there have been calls to regulate the food industry in the same way as the tobacco industry.
The latest study has called for a co-ordinated response from governments, retailers, restaurants and food and drink manufacturers to address what it calls the “global obesity crisis”. Recommendations include portion control in fast food packaged goods, educating parents, introducing healthy meals in schools and workplaces and changing the school curriculum to include more physical exercise.
Some food manufacturers are listening. Last year, Mars UK shrank its Mars and Snickers bars, reducing a Mars from 58g to 51g and Snickers from 58g to 48g as part of a pledge to cut calories in its products to a maximum of 250.
I’m calling on other food manufacturers to follow suit. Stop increasing the size of snacks, don’t hide sugar in so-called healthy food and make your labelling absolutely clear. As individuals we also need to take responsibility. Be aware of what you’re eating – if you want a sugar-laden snack, make sure the rest of your diet is healthy so it’s a treat rather than the norm. It doesn’t matter how much you exercise if you’re still doing the white lines of sugar cane – so don’t do it.
• Darren Padgett is director of Team Activ, a social enterprise helping children become fit for life.