The relationship between sugar and health

28 June 2021

Find more information below on the link between sugar and wellbeing, including facts about sugar.

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Key things to consider:

  • Farmers produce what the market (consumer) wants, and UK farmers grow sugar beet within a varied crop rotation which mitigates the impacts of pest and disease and helps soil structure. 
  • If UK farmers did not grow sugar beet, we would import sugar from around the world. 
  • There remains (and is likely to remain) a strong demand for sugar in the UK, therefore it is better for this sugar to be produced in the UK – to high standards of production under Red Tractor assurance – than elsewhere to uncertain production standards. All sugar beet produced in the UK and sold to British Sugar is Red Tractor assured. 
  • Sugar does not just provide sweetness, it provides lots of other functions within food, including structure, stability and preservation. 
  • Sugar production also produces many co-products (see ‘sugar and waste’) such as:
    • Energy 
    • Animal feed 
    • Topsoil - used to landscape the Chelsea Flower Show and the 2012 Olympic Park, for example.

Is sugar consumption directly linked to obesity?

  • Childhood and adulthood obesity are very complex public health issues that need a multi-facetted approach to manage their impacts on society. 
  • It is a very simplistic view to equate sugar with obesity as the focus should be on the entire diet. Obesity is a result of various factors, such as increased calorie intake, poor diet and lack of physical activity. In some cases genetics and medical issues can be causes of obesity.  
  • Consumption of ‘total sugars’ has reduced by 17.8% since 2001 and has reduced by 23.3% for non-milk extrinsic sugars. Non-milk extrinsic sugars are sugars within manufactured foods. 

Facts about sugar

  • Did you know that sugar contains 4 calories per gram, while alcohol contains 7 calories per gram and fat contains 9 calories per gram?
  • The body doesn’t distinguish between sugars used in manufacturing or in the kitchen, and those sugars found naturally in fruits and vegetables. For example, sucrose in an apple is broken down in exactly the same way as the sucrose in your sugar bowl. However, the rate of which the sugar (sucrose) is absorbed can vary depending on if the source is a solid or liquid food, for example, in an apple or apple juice.
  • White and brown sugars are both made from sugar cane or sugar beet. Brown sugar is essentially white sugar combined with molasses, which provides the dark colour, characteristic flavour and texture. The darker brown the sugar, the higher the amount of molasses. Both have the same number of calories at 4 calories per gram.
  • Sugar can never be hidden in food or drinks. The food labels on the back (or side) of packs always show the list of ingredients (in descending order of weight), as well as the total sugars contained in the product per 100g or per 100ml of product. Labels sometimes also show this information per portion and as a percentage of the reference intake (the new term for guideline daily amounts) – to help you know just how much sugar you are consuming in a single serving. This information can be found on the nutrition panel listed as 'carbohydrates – of which sugars'. It is worth noting that the ‘sugars’ on pack are total sugars, which includes any sugars used in manufacturing and those contained naturally in the product eg. from fruit or vegetables.

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Sugar and the National Food Strategy

Proposed sugar tax

In mid-July a recommendation was released in the National Food Strategy to apply a £3,000/t tax on sugar consumed outside the home. From the comments made by the Prime Minister and others in government, it is not likely this will become government policy.

Michael Sly on farm December 2018_62165

However, NFU Sugar chair Michael Sly responded with the following statement:

“The UK’s 3,000 arable farmers who grow sugar beet as part of their rotation produce high quality, Red Tractor assured sugar.

"We supply about half of all the white sugar consumed in the UK. However, we face a growing number of challenges which threaten the viability of home-grown sugar - from continued low prices for our sugar beet, to competition from imported sugar produced to standards that are illegal here.

"Should this tax be implemented it would be another significant nail in the coffin of our domestic industry.”

Overall, we believe the tax, in the unlikely event of being implemented, is unlikely to reduce sugar consumption or solve the obesity problem in the UK. The proposed sugar tax simplifies the obesity problem while unfairly demonising one ingredient."

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