Getting ready for the sugar wars (Day 37)

Diabetes indicatorSmoking, passive-smoking and tobacco-related products like ‘chewing tobacco’ still kill around six million people a year. Despite all the education, controls and stigmatisation of smokers over many decades, the casualty rate is expected to rise even further to eight million by 2030.

But humanity is likely to face an even bigger killer in the future – obesity.

Worldwide obesity has doubled since 1980. Current estimates suggest 3.4 million adults die every year as a result of being overweight.

All the evidence points to obesity becoming an even bigger killer than smoking.

So, I think it is inevitable, at some point, all out war will be declared on sugar (and other perceived ‘unhealthy foods’) by politicians and health professionals in particular.

The decision to solve rising obesity rates won’t be just a question of the risks it poses to quality of life; nor concerns that children born today will have shorter life expectancies compared to their parents; or even the realisation that current lifestyle trends are unsustainable.

Ultimately, I think it will be about money, especially the impact on health resources.

Education, food labelling, taxation, advertising restrictions, and specific measures to control children’s eating habits, such as the banning of school tuck shops, are all likely to be used to combat obesity.

There is also the question of criminalisation. Recently, a couple in the UK were arrested by police on suspicion of cruelty and neglect of their obese child. Although these cases appear to be rare, there is a clear responsibility that personal choice has limits and intervention from the state is an option.

The health arguments for following a balanced, healthy diet are strong. Cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and some cancers all come into play more with rising body weight.

However, we know from our experiences of tobacco interventions that this may not always be enough to change habits and behaviours.

So what is being done, and what are governments doing? More importantly, what is the role for chemical engineers in promoting healthier diets? As you would expect, there’s lots going on.

In Malaysia, one in six people are overweight. In response, the Malaysian Government established a National Nutrition Policy (NNP) in 2005 and a National Plan of Action for Nutrition of Malaysia (2006-2015), which suggests limiting the intake of foods high in fat and consuming foods and beverages low in sugar.

In Australia, three in five adults and a quarter of children are overweight. The Australian ‘eat for health’ campaign recommends limiting eating food containing saturated fat, added salt, added sugars and alcohol.

The UK Department of Health indicates that 62 per cent of adults and 25 per cent of children are overweight. As a result, they have commissioned the UK Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) to write a report on carbohydrates and health, reviewing 600 studies.

Currently the SACN is requesting scientific comment and critique (open until 1 September 2014) on the draft report to help develop a working health strategy. Potential contributions by chemical engineers include:

  • Setting the dietary reference value for free sugars (sugars added to food) at five per cent of daily energy intake
  • Limiting the consumption of free sugars in processed foods
  • Increasing the recommended amount of dietary fibre to 30g/day for adults (age 16+), 25g/day for children age 11-16, 20g/day for children age 5-11 and 15g/day for children age 2-5

I think the real solutions will be a combination of changing behaviours and also changing the foods we eat. Whichever the direction humanity takes, I sense chemical engineers will be working much closer with politicians in the decades ahead.

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