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The sweet stuff

It fuels child obesity, rots teeth and now it’s getting taxed – but is all sugar bad?

In his eighth budget, George Osborne announced a new ‘sugar tax’ would apply to super-sweet drinks from April 2018, warning MPs that ‘five-year-old children are consuming their body weight in sugar every year.’

The levy will be an important development in the fight against child obesity: there are 35g (seven teaspoons) of sugar in a 330ml can of Coca-Cola – more than the entire recommended daily allowance (30g) of added sugar for kids aged 11 and over. With products like that on the shelf, it’s no wonder that one in 10 children starts primary school in England obese – and that by leaving age the figure has doubled to one in five.

‘Total’ vs ‘free’ sugars

The fact pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks will be exempt from the sugar tax might sound obvious, but from the on-pack nutrition information it’s hard to see how these drinks are any healthier than fizzy pop.

That’s because nutrition labels display ‘total’ sugars, lumping everything from aspartame (E951) and saccharin (E954) together with lactose and fructose – the sugars that occur naturally in milk and fruit – under one heading.

‘Free’ sugars, such as monosaccharides (including glucose and fructose), disaccharides (including sucrose and table sugar) and the sugars found naturally in honey, syrups, fruit juices and fruit juice concentrates, are sweeteners that are added to food and drinks by manufacturers.

It’s this group of sugars that the World Health Organisation (WHO) – and now George Osborne – is cracking down on. ‘We have solid evidence that keeping intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake reduces the risk of overweight, obesity and tooth decay’, says Dr Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. ‘Making policy changes to support this will be key if countries are to live up to their commitments to reduce the burden of noncommunicable diseases.’

The WHO guideline does not refer to the sugars naturally present in fresh fruits and vegetables or milk because there’s no reported evidence that consuming these sugars has any adverse effects.

Sugar in dairy products

Milk, and therefore most dairy products, contains naturally occurring sugar in the form of lactose. Yoghurt and fromage frais usually contain a form of concentrated milk, meaning they’ll have about 6g of naturally occurring sugar (lactose) per 100g.

‘We want to contribute to the debate on sugar by helping to make clear the difference between naturally occurring sugar and ‘free’ sugars’, says Jerry Naish from Yeo Valley. ‘As a general rule, sugar per 100g over and above the 6g threshold can be categorised as ‘added’ or ‘free’ sugar. Around 60% of the dairy products sold under the Yeo Valley name contain no free sugars at all. As a certified organic brand, Yeo Valley cannot use artificial sweeteners – and nor would we want to.’

Yeo Valley has had its own sugar plan in place since January 2014; all its new fruit yoghurt recipes contain 5% or less added sugar, and by the end of 2016 this is expected to apply to the company’s most popular fruit recipes as well, representing a 16% reduction.

‘Tackling obesity, especially amongst children, is a shared responsibility that requires the commitment of government, food producers and individuals alike’, Jerry says. ‘As an independent family-run business, we want our customers to be able to make informed choices when it comes to feeding their own families.’

The ‘Little Yeos’ range of fromage frais is aimed at toddlers and contains no added refined sugar; instead, a little organic grape juice concentrate is used ‘to ensure it gets eaten and not thrown in the bin’. At 9.3g of sugar per 100g these recipes contain 20% less sugar than the market leader. The range also includes a plain option with no free sugars at all, allowing parents to add their own natural ingredients. ‘While our children’s yoghurt does contain 5% or less added sugar, we are working to remove added refined sugar from all our children’s lines by April 2017’, says Tiff Warren, head of recipe creation at Yeo Valley.

While nutrition labels and traffic light information are useful, make sure you always look at the list of ingredients so you know exactly what’s in the product before you put it in you.

Click here for NHS guidance on sugar consumption. Click here for more on Yeo Valley’s stance on sugar.

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