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19 Jun 2007 : Column 400WH—continued

That alarmed me a little. It is obvious to everyone that high consumption of high-calorie foods such as sugar has an effect on weight gain. We can surely all agree on that.

In the past two decades UK sugar consumption has increased by 31 per cent., to 1.25 lb per person per week. A comparison of the 1978 and 2002 editions of the industry handbook on the nutritional value of foods, McCance and Widdowson’s “The Composition of Foods” shows that many foods that were previously thought to be healthy and largely sugar-free are anything but. For instance, in 1978 Kellogg’s Special K had 9.6 g of sugar per 100 g; it has since risen to 17 g per 100 g. In crude terms, that means that that breakfast cereal now contains almost as much sugar as vanilla ice cream.

The Food Standards Agency wants food companies to reduce the amount of sugar in their products, and is so worried about the trend that it is considering imposing legal limits. Sainsbury’s says that it is looking at the products that it sells to see whether it can reduce sugar and salt levels, but earlier this month it announced a reformulation of its own brand of regular soft drinks, replacing all low-calorie sweeteners with sugar. The timing is particularly surprising, given that both the European Union and our own FSA are considering how to encourage reformulation to limit sugar content. If progress is to be made in that respect, the Government must have a constructive relationship with food manufacturers. I believe that we can do slightly better.

I shall now focus on the role of low-calorie sweeteners. In previous statements about tackling obesity, the Department of Health and the Food Standards Agency advised against fizzy drinks, but that blanket condemnation failed to recognise that sales of diet colas containing virtually no calories outstrip sales of full sugar versions in the UK. To lump all fizzy drinks together when talking about obesity is misleading. Late last year, at a meeting with the FSA, industry representatives were told that future FSA advice would be against sugary drinks, not fizzy drinks. There seems to be a contradiction between that advice and the school drinks regime. If the FSA is advising against sugary drinks, how is it that smoothies and juices are still on the menu? That question highlights the need to focus on the properties of the drinks that are prohibited, rather than the broad categories that they fall into, as currently happens.

One of the arguments that are used against low-calorie sweeteners is that they encourage a sweet tooth. I have not seen any studies or scientific evidence to demonstrate
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that. I am happy to apologise to the Under-Secretary if he can produce such evidence. Any studies that have been done have rejected such a conclusion. Following through on those studies, the School Food Trust amended its advice on its website, and even the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence was asked to clarify its advice to the public. I assume that if industry were to come up with a salt substitute that passed all the safety tests, the Government would give it a warm welcome. Yet at the moment there are safe sugar substitutes and the Government are hesitant about endorsing or encouraging them.

I have received a briefing from Ajinomoto, the largest food manufacturing company in Japan, which manufactures the low-calorie sweetener aspartame. Aspartame is the most widely studied food additive, with more than 200 published papers about it. Any paper that has raised a serious health concern has failed at basic peer review level. Most recently, in May 2006, the European Food Safety Authority reconfirmed its safety. It is unsurprising that aspartame should be safe, given that it is a simple combination of two amino acids that occur naturally in our bodies.

Professor Jack Winkler, director of the nutrition policy unit at London Metropolitan university has said:

Experience has taught us politicians that we must usually take the pragmatic approach, but there is a good argument for saying that officials have been inclined to take what Professor Winkler describes as the principled approach. Perhaps that has led to some of the lack of agreement with industry on the school drinks regime.

Again, the clarity of Ofcom’s definition,

commends itself. The benefits of sugar substitution in the fight against obesity are widely recognised by clinicians, academics, slimming organisations and of course the general public. The Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), has acknowledged that sugar substitution with low-calorie sweeteners has a role to play in reducing energy intake. I therefore urge the Under-Secretary to reconsider which drinks are allowed in schools.

I praise the Government for being proactive in tackling obesity, which is a huge public health concern in the UK today. I know that this is not in the Under-Secretary’s remit, but in that of the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley. However, if he thinks that there is room for further discussion and that we can make progress, I shall be happy to seek a meeting with him and bring with me some of the people who have made me aware of the issue, to explore it further. If, on the other hand, he
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thinks that it would be a waste of time, I shall be happy for him to tell me, “You go your way and I will go mine on this issue.”

My hon. Friend has always been very helpful, and I want to make it clear to him that my comments are meant to be helpful to the Government. This issue has been raised with me by youngsters in my constituency, and I raise it today to ask the Government to focus a little more sharply on policy and to eliminate contradictions. However, I know that there are different considerations to balance. In conclusion, I reiterate that I am trying to be helpful and to make progress. I will be happy if my hon. Friend goes away and thinks about my comments, because it is not often that I get up and say that the Government have got things slightly wrong. I generally praise them from the rooftops.

Mr. Christopher Chope (in the Chair): We come to the Front-Bench speakers, who have a limit of 23 minutes each.

11.20 am

Norman Lamb (North Norfolk) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Chope, but I suspect that I shall not take up all of that generous offer.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on securing this debate on an important issue, even though other hon. Members have not seen it as such. I do not intend to blame all of the problem on the Government or to be partisan about it, because there are genuine and serious issues involved that need proper, rational discussion. I was interested to hear the hon. Gentleman’s comments on sugar substitutes, and I learned a lot from listening to him.

I start with the problem of obesity. The hon. Gentleman gave some frightening statistics, especially about the youngest children. Of children aged between two and 10, some 9.9 per cent. were obese in 1995, and 13.4 per cent. were obese in 2004. That is an alarming rise. I shall go on to discuss the public service agreements that three Departments entered into in 2004 to halt that trend by 2010, but the trend is very much in the other direction at the moment and is extremely alarming.

Thirty-one per cent. of English 15-year-olds are overweight. As the parent of two teenage sons, I know that parents see this problem all around them among their children’s friends. There is a balance to be struck between diet and exercise, which are equally important, but I shall return to that point. Too many youngsters are overweight, and one increasingly has the sense that parents do not notice what is happening to their children, which I find alarming. An extraordinary 17 per cent. of 15-year-olds are obese. Not only this country is affected. I understand that British children are among the fattest in the world, but the trends are similar across the developed world—the number of obese children across the whole of the developed world almost doubled between the 1980s and the 1990s.

What are the effects of those alarming trends? The life expectancy of anyone who becomes obese is reduced by an average of nine years, which contradicts all the trends in the other direction as countries develop. As the hon. Gentleman said, there is also an impact on health in the form of type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular
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disease and certain cancers, as well as the mental health problems that are associated with obesity, which should not be forgotten. Another effect is the cost both to the individuals concerned and to society as a whole. It is estimated that up to 7 per cent. of health care costs across the EU is committed to dealing with obesity-related illnesses. That is extraordinary.

Let us consider the role of sugar. I was alarmed by the quote from Lord Warner, which I had not heard before, that no clear link had been established between sugar and body weight. The Government ought to be working on the precautionary principle, and such an apparently complacent attitude on the part of a Minister rather contradicts the whole approach of the Food Standards Agency, which is pushing for action to reduce levels of sugar in food. I would be grateful if the Minister would specifically address Lord Warner’s comments. Does he accept them, or does he think that even if the evidence is not all there yet, we have to work on the basis that there is a link and that we must take action to reduce sugar levels?

Sugar consumption has implications not just for obesity but for tooth decay. I had the pleasure of visiting my dentist yesterday, and he commented on the extent of work that had been done in my mouth. He told me that things had improved an awful lot for children’s dental care in the years since I was born, but there is a danger that things will slip in the other direction because of the significant increase in sugar in our diets.

In an article in the British Medical Journal, an academic likened sugar to a hard drug and said that it was addictive and harmful—potentially as damaging as tobacco. There is a danger of us all becoming food fascists, and my general approach to such issues is that we should take everything in moderation and that sugar can play a proper part in a balanced diet.

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I would not for one moment accuse the hon. Gentleman of being a food fascist, but if he were to remove sugar from people’s diets, what would he replace it with, given the relative calorific value of the alternatives?

Norman Lamb: I was about to discuss the changes in the sugar content of certain familiar products in the past few years. Perhaps I can deal with that first. There is an excessive amount of sugar in our diets. I am no expert—the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) is much more of an expert than me, and I shall welcome his contribution—but there has been a lot of analysis of the sugar content of foods in the past 30 years. The hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland also raised this issue.

It seems that the sugar content of many foods has doubled. There is a particular problem with foods such as cereals, because there is a widespread assumption that they are a good, healthy food. The hon. Gentleman told us that the sugar content of Special K, which I think everyone assumes is broadly a healthy food, has doubled since 1978. Most consumers would also think of wholemeal bread as a healthy product, but Hovis wholemeal has 3.7 g of sugar per 100 g—three teaspoons of sugar per three slices of bread. That is amazing; I had no idea that its sugar content was so high.

Which? has discussed the sugar content in many ready meals. We live in an ever more frenetic society in
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which, often, both parents work and so increasingly rely on ready meals. However, the sugar content of ready meals is much higher than that of the food that families would previously have cooked themselves. Many ready meals have a sugar content as high as 23 g per 100 g. I would never have realised when I sat eating my Waitrose tomato soup that it contained 6.4 g of sugar per 100g. So, the trend of the past 30 years has been that many food manufacturers have dramatically increased the sugar content of their foods.

What should we do about it? In a sense, there is a conflict between concerns about the nanny state and the Government seeking to control or heavily influence behaviour, and the imperative to tackle a serious public health issue. The trends are so serious that we must do something, and Government, industry, other public sector bodies, such as local government, and individuals all have a role to play.

The Public Accounts Committee examined the Government’s situation, referring, in December, to the public service agreement of 2004. That was signed up to by the Department of Health, the Department for Education and Skills and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The particular commitment was to halt

We may be most concerned about obesity in children, but the trend also very much afflicts the rest of the population.

The Public Accounts Committee drew attention to the fact that there were no ring-fenced budgets or specific programmes, and that the approach was to try to influence existing Government programmes and the food industry to change the formulation of products. I fully appreciate that the PAC was commenting on a previous period, that things have moved on since and that some things have improved. However, its conclusion was that “little concrete action” had been taken.

Since then, we have seen the traffic lights initiative on food labelling and the Ofcom rules on advertising in respect of children’s programmes. Both measures have been controversial and there has been pressure on Government and regulators from both sides to push in one or other direction.

Some products show guideline daily amounts—the alternative, industry solution—as opposed to the traffic lights system promoted by the Food Standards Agency. I am conscious that the food industry is spending a fortune on fighting its corner, because it recognises the potential financial impact in relation to some of these products. I understand its concerns that as products are reformulated, they need to maintain their attractiveness so that they can sell them. It is legitimate for the industry not to want massively to damage its business. There must be an objective assessment of the evidence during this, in a sense, trial period involving the two competing approaches. The industry says that it wants eventually to implement whatever is most effective, so there is an onus on it to demonstrate that its scheme is effective. It is important that it works closely with Government and the FSA to ensure that whatever emerges is based on objective evidence and a rational decision about what works best.

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Judging by what I have seen so far, we need something that is simple, that consumers understand and that guides behaviour. That pushes me, perhaps rather reluctantly, in the direction of a traffic lights system. There appears to be some evidence that consumers are changing their purchasing habits and identifying the information on the packaging.

There is a duty on the food industry to behave responsibly. Large companies all sign up to the concept of corporate social responsibility. In this regard, their corporate social responsibility is to take a lead, rather than just be pushed, to ensure that their products are as healthy as possible and to reformulate as much as they can in order to address the dangerous trends that we are witnessing.

As for the Ofcom measures, there is a lot of pressure to go further than Ofcom has gone and to adopt the 9 pm watershed prohibition. As policymakers, the Government, the FSA and Ofcom ought to make a rational, objective assessment of how the regime is working before deciding whether more draconian measures are necessary.

In February, one of the Minister’s ministerial colleagues said:

I would be most grateful if the Minister could update us on exactly what has happened in that regard. Are those rules in place or likely to be in place soon? That commitment was made back in February, so it would be valuable to know whether action had been taken.

I said that other public bodies had a role to play. In preparing for this debate, I noted that Liverpool city council, a good Liberal Democrat council, is taking the sensible step of removing drinks machines that sell very sugary products from its main sports facilities. The Norfolk and Norwich university hospital has Coca Cola machines throughout its buildings, and in this day and age, that is rather bizarre. My concern is that the hospital is driven by the money that the machines provide rather than what is in patients’ interests.

Some valuable trends are occurring in schools, and the Government have played a part in those. However, I know of schools in my constituency that have rejected the dismal food that comes from the county council’s provider and have opted for their own, in-house cooked meals, which are of a high standard. I enjoyed a meal at Stalham middle school, where the quality of the food was tremendous. This is happening all over the place, and it is a good thing.

I want to end by again making a point about exercise. This debate is about one part of the equation, the importance of exercise being the other. Disturbing trends can also be seen in that regard, because there are lots of pressures on families, particularly given the development of the internet. There is a trend for children to remain sedentary and not go out and get enough exercise. Some children and teenagers have an embarrassment factor that puts them off some of the traditional sports, so we must be open-minded about the whole range of sports and exercises in which they can engage. It is crucial to get the message across, through schools, sports clubs and so on, that exercise is important.

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I am practising what I preach, because I am training for the great London run on 1 July. Incidentally, I am accepting sponsorship for Cruse Bereavement Care, which is an excellent charity. Last night, I ran 9 km around the course—I am still here to tell the tale, although my body has somewhat seized up. Exercise is incredibly important for children and adults, and the Government must keep repeating that message.

11.38 am

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury) (Con): I shall try not to expand my contribution to fit the time available. I congratulate the hon. Member for Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland (Dr. Kumar) on raising this important subject and on his having consistently done so over several years by way of parliamentary questions and early-day motions.

It is important to avoid junk science and drawing easy conclusions. We know several things about the subject, without fear of peradventure. We know that obesity is dramatically on the rise, and we have a particular problem in this country according to the Eurostat data that has recently become available. We are on safe ground in asserting that obesity can lead to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, cerebral vascular disease, various forms of arthritis, cancer and probably some forms of mental ill health, but in 2002, the National Academy of Sciences concluded:

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