Europe could be flooded by cheap sugar because of plans to liberalise the sugar market, according to a new study.

Sugar consumption has been a matter of hot debate in the UK in recent weeks, with a Public Health England (PHE) report linking high sugar consumption with an obesity crisis, which costs the NHS £5.1bn every year.

Until now, the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has kept sugar prices artificially high through import tariffs, minimum price guarantees, production quotas and export subsidies. It has also limited the production of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) to 5% of all sugar.

But, according to Emilie Aguirre and her colleagues at the University of Cambridge, in a report published in the British Medical Journal, a series of reforms that started in 2013 look set to wipe out these protective measures and restrictions by 2017.

They suggest this will cause sugar production to increase hugely, both as existing producers attempt to compensate for a large fall in sugar prices and as countries that are unable to grow sugar beet are now able to enter the sugar market by growing corn, wheat and other products, which can be turned into HFCS.

Food processors

The report stated: “Lowering the cost of sugars to food processors will make it more economically viable to incorporate sugars into processed foods as an easy, inexpensive means of increasing palatability, potentially resulting in higher sugar content in foods that already contain sugars.

“The price drop in sugar and increased availability of high fructose corn syrup may also result in sugars being added to a broader range of foods. Apart from sweetness, HFCS has benefits for flavour, stability, freshness, texture, pourability and consistency, and it can be used in both sweet foods and some savoury foods (such as ketchup).”

This report comes as a new poll found that two out of three UK GPs believe the government should implement a ‘sugar tax’. The survey of 878 GPs for Pulse magazine found that 67% supported a new tax, while 25% were opposed. A similar survey from Pulse last year found just 52% of GPs supported the idea of a sugar tax, while 40% were opposed.

However, Prime Minister David Cameron has admitted he is not in favour of a tax, believing there are other measures available to drive down childhood obesity.