Tackling childhood obesity: Sugar intake for 10-year-old UK kids well above RDI

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03 Jan 2019 --- By the age of ten, children have already exceeded the maximum recommended sugar intake for an 18-year-old, according to new evidence from Public Health England (PHE). This is based on their total sugar consumption from the age of two. The figures, released yesterday, coincided with the launch of the Change4Life campaign from PHE, which encourages families to “make a swap when you next shop” in a bid to cut sugar consumption and renew focus on sugar reduction as a method to tackle childhood obesity.

While children’s sugar intakes have declined slightly in recent years, they are still consuming around eight excess sugar cubes per day, equivalent to around 2,800 excess sugar cubes per year, notes PHE. The UK has famously instated a sugar tax on beverages with added sugars since April 2018 which pushed manufacturers to formulate lower-sugar alternatives, but high levels of sugar remain in other popular products.

“To make this easier for busy families, Change4Life is offering a straightforward solution – by making simple swaps each day, children can have healthier versions of everyday foods and drinks, while significantly reducing their sugar intake,” says Dr. Alison Tedstone, Chief Nutritionist at PHE.

The Change4Life campaign encourages families to make swaps to cut sugar:
• A higher-sugar yogurt (for example split-pot) for a lower sugar one, to halve children's sugar intake from six cubes of sugar to three.
• A sugary juice drink for a no-added-sugar juice drink, to cut back from two cubes to half a cube.
• A higher-sugar breakfast cereal (such as a frosted or chocolate cereal) for a lower sugar cereal, to cut back from three cubes to half a cube per bowl.

Making these swaps every day could remove around 2,500 sugar cubes per year from a child’s diet. However, swapping chocolate, puddings, sweets, cakes and pastries for healthier options such as malt loaf, sugar-free jellies, lower-sugar custards and rice puddings would reduce their intake more, note PHE.

With a third of children leaving primary school overweight or obese, tackling obesity requires wider action. 

PHE is encouraging families to look for the Change4Life “Good Choice” badge in shops, download the free Food Scanner app or search Change4Life to help them find lower sugar options.Click to EnlargeWhile UK kids' sugar intakes have declined slightly in recent years, they are still consuming around eight excess sugar cubes per day.

PHE is working with the food industry to remove 20 percent of sugar from the products contributing the most to children’s sugar intakes by 2020, for example.

However, despite this 20 percent voluntary target for the food industry, progress has been “disappointing,” particularly regarding puddings and confectionery products, Caroline Cerny, Alliance Lead at Obesity Healthy Alliance (OHA) tells NutritionInsight.

“The food industry has an important part to play in reducing the sugar content in foods. We want to see them step up and cut sugar levels from their products in line with the Government’s reformulation program,” she adds.

Indeed, chocolate and sweet confectionery are among the highest contributors of sugar in the British diet, providing together 10 percent of the total sugar in diets of children aged four to ten years old and 11 percent in teenagers aged 11 to 18 years, Kawther Hashem, Researcher and Nutritionist at Action on Sugar based at Queen Mary University of London, tells NutritionInsight.

Next steps?
Despite industry professionals largely applauding the Change4Life move, they advocate that more can still be done. Stricter regulations regarding labeling, advertising and taxes on sugar-laden foods are all possible avenues.

“We’re pleased that the Change4Life campaign has come back to focus on sugar reduction. This national push will help our local Sugar Smart campaigns get this message out to communities across the UK,” says Vera Zakharov, Sugar Smart Campaign Coordinator.

More could be done, for example, regarding color-coded labeling on packs, notes Hashem from Action on Sugar.

“Encouraging parents to halve their children’s sugar intake from everyday food and drink products is applaudable, but if we are to curb the UK’s escalating childhood obesity epidemic then the government must enforce more hard-hitting tactics. This could be mandatory uniform color-coded labeling on front of packs, product reformulation with a 50 percent reduction in sugar across all products, a tax on confectionery and ensure that only healthy products are marketed and advertised.”

“Change4Life ‘Good Choice’ badges which help families find lower sugar options in shops is a step in the right direction, but we now need to see the use of color-coded labels. Currently, the recommendations are voluntary which means that different (and often confusing) labels are used. Current government policy has no legal requirement for manufacturers to adopt a consistent use of color-coded labeling,” she adds.Click to EnlargeStricter regulations regarding labeling, advertising and taxes on sugar-laden foods are all possible avenues to reduce sugar consumption, as suggested by industry experts.

The adoption of stricter advertising rules could also aid the challenge of obesity: “Action on irresponsible advertising through a 9pm watershed on junk food marketing on TV and similar restrictions online, restrictions on price and place promotions of unhealthy food and drink in shops will also help busy UK parents to make healthier choices for their families,” says Cerny of the OHA.

Further strides have been made in the UK concerning advertising and food labeling. Late last year, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, announced a ban on junk food advertisements across London’s public transportation network, Transport for London (TfL).  

A report from Cancer Research UK supported the move, showing that young people who recalled seeing junk food adverts every day were more than twice as likely to be obese. The same study found that 87 percent of young people considered adverts for high fat, salt and sugar products enticing, with three-quarters tempted to eat a product after seeing such an advert.

Also in announced in November, Kellogg UK is to adopt color-coded labeling in the UK on cereal packs made exclusively for sale in Britain. The new labeling is to start from this month on brands including Coco Pops, Crunchy Nut, Corn Flakes, Rice Krispies, Frosties and Special K. The news came a day after PepsiCo announced that it would trial interpretative color-coded labeling for both beverages and foods in many EU markets, using the 100g/ml-based approach already voluntarily implemented in the UK and Ireland. 

By Laxmi Haigh

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