Sugar scare

I don’t know if it was a coincidence or not but it was impossible to ignore the fact that in the run up to Halloween, three reports were released by Public Health England that could only be described as being frightening. First to press was an evidence summary reviewing the relationship between dental caries and obesity in children that found a correlation at age 5. Next out were the latest figures from the National Child Measurement Programme which showed a significant upward trend in obesity and excess weight among Year 6 pupils with girls showing a higher than average increase per year. And the grand finale was the long anticipated report on sugar, Sugar Reduction, The evidence for action, which outdid the other two reports by not only supporting their findings but succeeding to spook the Government and the Food and Drink Federation, among others, by recommending the introduction of a tax on high sugar products.

Some the evidence used to back the introduction of a sugar tax has come from Mexico as it implemented a 10% tax on all non-alcoholic and non-dairy drinks with added sugar in 2014. After an initial 6% decline in consumption of taxed drinks it reached 12% by December. As Mexico has the highest childhood obesity rate in the world at present, the success of using a tax to curb sugar consumption has been followed closely by the UK. It all sounds so simple and perhaps that is why the idea of introducing a sugar tax has had such wide endorsement in the public domain.

I wondered what else we could learn from Mexico and by spooky coincidence, I was about to visit the country for the second time in 2 months during the week of Halloween. Although I had visited Mexico numerous times in the past I was not convinced that I would notice any difference in the country. After all, what does a sugar tax look like, in force? I wasn’t intending on buying any of the taxed drinks so would I really see any effect? Surprisingly, there were a couple of things I picked up on during both visits to Mexico that I hadn’t seen before. Although travelling as a tourist can only give you a snapshot impression of a city and is by no means objective, I think the differences I noticed may indicate that they are doing something else right in Mexico besides simply using a sugar tax.

The first difference I noticed was that Mexico seems to have put a lot of resources into a strong public health campaign educating the public about sugar and obesity but this also includes anti-bullying. I have never seen a similar campaign in the UK before that was aimed specifically at overweight or obese individuals. In Mexico, I saw large posters in bus stops showing the back of an obese child labelled with the word ‘cerdo’, or ‘pig’ in big letters with an anti-bullying message. They were absolutely striking and what a contrast to the fast-food posters that faced them. Mexico has also expanded the campaign to tv ads which warn parents about giving children ‘12 spoons of sugar’ in a single bottle of fizzy drink. As the standard size soft drink bottle available is 355ml, reducing consumption will have an even greater effect on sugar intake.

The second difference that stood out for me in Mexico is that in general, people seemed to be much more active than I had noticed in the past and there were many more people out exercising by walking, running or using one of the free park gyms. It was also the first time that I had seen several posters on lamp posts advertising upcoming 5km charity runs and half-marathons. As I went for some runs on my trip and experienced much uneven and missing pavement, uncovered manholes and very heavy pollution from traffic that was a bit too close to comfort, I must say that running in a Mexican city is a bit of an adventure. So it is extremely impressive that so many people participate in 5km runs let alone half-marathons with the road conditions and of course, the heat. I also experienced this every time I tried out the hotel gym, where I was invariably joined by several Mexican tourists who later made up the numbers for the daily aqua aerobics class on offer. And unlike the UK, people workout in whatever gear they have. On one of my runs I spotted an older man across the street running for the bus. However, after another 1km down the road, I looked across to realise that he was still there and was out for a run in what looked like regular trousers and converse-type shoes. Nothing was going to stop him.

Towards the end of my visit to Mexico, the city began to prepare for Halloween and the Day of the Dead by erecting decorations, lights and elaborate displays featuring special foods and drinks, candles and sugar skulls left for the spirits of the dead to feast upon. It would be a 3 day celebration where many traditional sweets, pastries and drinks would be consumed and the sugar tax could not change this. But perhaps this is precisely the right place for sweet treats, to be enjoyed as part of a special celebration rather than routinely eaten without thought in our diet as an ordinary, everyday snack. Maybe this is something else we can learn from Mexico.

Although the differences I noticed in Mexico were made while on holiday I think that there may be something going on there than just the sugar tax. Which brings me back to the Sugar Reduction report. We have heard a lot about the sugar tax but what nobody seems to be saying in the media is that the tax is just one of eight recommended areas of action as ‘No single action will be effective in reducing sugar intakes’. What is interesting is that the report makes strong recommendations in other areas such as the marketing, advertising, labelling, reformulation and availability of high sugar foods alongside raising public awareness of health concerns. In the end, the only way we will reduce sugar consumption is by changing the environment that drives our poor diet and a sugar tax is only part of the solution. So the question is not if we should introduce a sugar tax or not but when are we going to make the larger changes in our environment by acting on all of the recommendations in the report? Can we do this if the Government and the Food and Drink Federation, among others, are still spooked? A Mexican standoff comes to mind…

And on that note, some Mexican inspired food comes to mind. No sugar involved in this hearty one-pot meal. Chilli chicken with mixed beans has just the right spiciness to warm you up on an autumn day.

Day of the dead 1Chilli chicken 2

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