British Baker has followed the sugar debate closely, and when campaign group Action on Sugar called for sugar tax and reductions in food, we asked bakers what they thought. Jim Brown from the British Society of Baking writes to express his views on the ongoing sugar dispute. 

Dear Sir,

Ref: War on sugar could pose a new headache

I read with interest Lesley’s Viewpoint and the poll on sugar reduction reference the sugar in food debate in the 27 June issue of British Baker.

Given the difficulty and cost of doing so and the doubtful effect it would have on the so called ‘obesity epidemic’, I was surprised that “Nearly two-thirds of online pollsters would be happy to reduce the levels of sugar in their baking to help tackle obesity, in line with controversial proposals made by campaigners this week”. What sections of the baking industry did the pollsters represent and how many pollsters took part?

One of my concerns is that there seems to be a lack of distinction between over-eating and unhealthy-eating in many of the comments on sugar and obesity. To my mind, as alluded to by Richard Pike of British Sugar, obesity is caused by over-eating – consuming more calories than the energy you expend in work, play and exercise can use up. It does not matter if you are eating a balanced diet or an unhealthy diet, if you over-eat you will become obese. The danger in continuing to say that sugar, or any other food ingredient, is responsible for the ‘obesity epidemic’, is in making obese people think ‘I am not fat because I am over-eating – it is because of the things manufacturers are putting in the food I eat. Why cannot they change the food so I can eat as much of it as I want without getting obese?’ Sadly the extent of over-consumption of food by many people, both adults and children, is such that no reduction of sugar or any other ingredient in food products will bring them back to a balanced calorie intake and output. This can only be done by reducing their food intake.

One of the principal strategies in fighting the ‘obesity epidemic’ and improving health, should be getting consumers to take responsibility for both their diet and the amount of food they eat. As Mike Holling of the Craft Bakers’ Association said in your article: "You can put up as many guidelines as you want, but it comes down to the people involved as regards their lifestyle choices and what they eat.” Mike also advocated discussion between the campaigners and the industry.

In a debate on food and health at Foodex 2014, chaired by Michael Portillo, in answer to a question on the commitment of the baking industry to improving the public’s health, the response from chairman of the BSB Sara Autton included: “The aspect of a balanced diet seems to have dropped off the agenda with some consumers. The baking industry can make a good contribution towards the nation’s health in conjunction with the education of consumers as to what a healthy balanced diet is, and how they can adopt it easily and in a way that they can afford.”

This is not to say that no action should be taken on sugar, and soft drinks are an obvious target. Gradually reducing the sugar in soft drinks is a good idea to get consumers used to the reduced sweetness. Targeting ‘hidden’ sugar in other foods, for example breakfast cereals, is also a good idea, but again it may require a gradual reduction. How much benefit there would be in reducing sugar in bakery confectionery products, which are regarded as treats rather than a consumer’s main diet, is very difficult to say. In a presentation entitled ‘The Sugar Debate’ at the BSB 2014 autumn conference, Gary Tucker, of Campden BRI, will discuss sugar functionality in bakery products and how it can be replaced with other ingredients if a reduced sugar product is required; and that may provide some of the answers.

The obesity crisis is a modern phenomenon related to the affluence of consumers and their more sedentary lifestyle, yet the products bakers produce have been consumed for a great many years without any apparent health or obesity problems. As stated already, unless consumers take responsibility for what they eat and how much they eat, their weight control and health will not improve and any changes bakers make to the products they produce will be to no avail.

Jim Brown

British Society of Baking