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Gradually reducing sugar in sweet drinks could prevent 1 million cases of obesity in the UK, study finds

And it's possible nobody would even notice…

PETER DOCKRILL
8 JAN 2016
 

One way of combatting obesity is to target the food and drinks that help cause it, especially sweetened beverages, which are a major source of excess sugar consumption. This can be achieved by imposing a soda tax like the one currently underway in Mexico, but what if we simply reduced the amount of sugar in sweet drinks?

According to new research in the UK, gradually lowering sugar levels in sweet drinks – such as fruit juices and soft drinks – could be a major benefit to the health of the British populace. And the best part is, if the changes were implemented smoothly enough, people might not even notice that the sweetness of their beverages was decreasing.

 

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London say that reducing the sugar content in sugar-sweetened drinks by 40 percent over five years – without replacing them with any artificial sweeteners – could prevent 500,000 people becoming overweight in the UK, and 1 million cases of obesity. In turn, this could also prevent approximately 300,000 cases of type 2 diabetes over the next 20 years.

To arrive at these figures, the researchers sourced data from the National Diet and Nutrition Survey between 2008–2012 and British Soft Drinks Association annual reports, calculating the extent to which sweet drinks make up people's energy intake in the UK.

According to their calculations, the gradual reduction in sugar content would culminate in a 38.4 percent reduction in calories per day by the end of the fifth year, which would lead to an average reduction in body weight of 1.2 kilograms.

That might not sound like much, but it would be enough in itself to mean approximately 500,000 less overweight people and 1 million less obese people respectively, helping somewhere between 274,000 and 309,000 people avoid developing obesity-related type 2 diabetes over the next two decades.

What's so clever about the plan – provided the calculations are correct, of course – is that nobody would have to sacrifice anything in terms of the flavours of their drinks.

"The appreciation of sweetness can adapt to gradual changes in sugar intake, and it is unlikely that the proposed strategy will influence the consumers' choice provided the gradual reduction is done over five years," the authors write in The Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology.

In addition, since consumers aren't expected to register any change in flavour, the sugar reduction is unlikely to affect the sales or profits of beverage makers, meaning the system could be attractive to the much-maligned sweetened drink industry. However, it's likely those involved in sugar production would show resistance to such a scheme.

The researchers aren't promising that this is any kind of silver bullet for the complex factors that lead to people becoming overweight and obese, but they do believe such a reduction in sugar content could make a valuable contribution to people's health overall.

"Individuals should also reduce their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages in the long term, but this can be difficult because of the advertising power of industry," the authors write. "Our proposed strategy provides an innovative and practical way to gradually reduce energy intake from sugar-sweetened beverages and its combination with other strategies, including a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, would produce a more powerful effect."

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