This week, Switzerland’s federal parliament rejected two cantonal initiatives to cut sugar consumption, reported RTS.
On 27 February 2023, Switzerland’s parliament rejected plans to restrict the sugar content of processed foods and drinks and to require clearer labelling showing the amount of sugar. The proposals were put forward by the cantons of Geneva and Fribourg. Instead, parliament preferred to leave the task to the food industry.
The aim of the initiatives was to cut obesity, particularly among children, and reduce rates of cancer, hypertension, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, liver and kidney disease and other related health problems – the World Obesity Federation has identified 38 diseases related to obesity.
According to Nathalie Farpour-Lambert, a paediatric obesity specialist from Geneva interviewed by RTS, rejection of the initiatives was a slap in the face but not surprising. The food lobby is strong and its products make up a significant slice of GDP.
This week, the World Obesity Federation published a report forecasting that 50% of the global population will be overweight or obese by 2035, up from 38% in 2020. According to the organisation’s estimates, 37% of Switzerland’s adult population will be obese by 2035, placing it in the very high category. Men are expected to be the hardest hit, with their obesity rate set to rise to 45% by 2035. The rate among women is forecast to rise to 30%. Obesity is defined as having a BMI of 30 or higher.
With the health and economic costs of obesity growing, tackling the problem feels like a high priority. And cutting sugar is an important element of this fight.
Nathalie Farpour-Lambert points to studies that suggest sugar might be as addictive as cocaine. Sugar stimulates brain reward circuits that make us feel pleasure and motivate our behaviour in the same way as drugs. Sugar withdrawal symptoms may be less severe, but they exist in the form of irritability, she said.
The expert recommends changing the formulation of food products to reduce sugar and fat content. She also points out examples of nations like Portugal where sugar taxes have cut consumption and obesity in children.
Informing the public is also important. Clear labelling that groups all forms of sugar is key. Sugars can be confusingly listed separately as glucose, glucose syrup, fructose, molasses and honey. If these ingredients are added up and shown as a single figure the sugar content becomes clear.
Instead of pushing an industry with a strong lobby to change the formulation of its products it might be more effective to side step their products. For example, a sustained campaign to educate the population, parents in particular, of the financial and health benefits of switching to exclusively drinking water, might lead to greater gains. Engaging in a battle of resistance with large food companies is likely to only deliver small hard won incremental improvements. As Farpour-Lambert explains in the interview, a 10% reduction in the sugar content of a typical drink doesn’t bring it even close to being healthy. So why not side step these products entirely?
Another advantage of a positive drink-only-water campaign is that it wouldn’t require a confusing discussion on the negative health effects of fruit juice, another drink full of free sugar, a concept developed by the World Health Organisation to get fruit juice correctly classified as an unhealthy beverage. In addition, the downsides of artificial sweeteners – appetite stimulation and gut bacteria damage – don’t need to be explained.
It could be time to try to make nature’s original beverage the clear favourite.