The sugar company that is fighting back

A child eating a donut Image copyright Thinkstock

A sugar company is fighting back against the perceived demonisation of sugar by the media, saying it's been disproportionately blamed for causing obesity, writes Tom Heyden.

It's not been a happy couple of years for anybody selling refined sugar. The American doctor Robert Lustig has garnered international attention by suggesting too much fructose sugar in the diet equates to "poison". "Sugar is now enemy number one in the Western diet", is a typical newspaper headline. Market researchers Mintel labelled "demonisation of sugar" as the reason for a rise in artificial sweeteners used in drinks. It's been implanted in many people's minds that added sugar is behind the obesity epidemic as well as other health problems.

Now producer AB Sugar is fed up with the media's attack. It has launched a campaign called "Making Sense of Sugar", aiming to improve understanding of its product. "Obesity is a complex issue that has no single cause," writes chief executive Mark Carr in an article for The Grocer magazine. Sugar has been given "more than its fair share of the blame", he says, considering other factors such as exercise levels and overall consumption of calories. Carr criticises the media's "alarming headlines and confusing advice".

By sugar, health campaigners don't mean the sugar found naturally in complex carbohydrates or fruits. They mean refined sugars, sometimes known as "free sugars", that are added artificially. And there's no doubt that there is serious and growing concern over consumption levels of this type of sugar. The World Health Organization's new target is that added sugars - as well as some natural ones - should account for no more than 5% of energy intake - down from 10%. Some nutrition scientists say that isn't far enough. They argue for less than 3%.

The 5% figure represents 25g of sugar a day. Bearing in mind that a can of Coca Cola contains 35g and that sugar is added to a host of cereals, breads, sauces and ready meals, such a target means big changes in Western diets.

Sugar is definitely misunderstood, agrees nutrition expert Dr Sarah Schenker. The word itself has so many definitions, she says, that it often requires a level of biochemistry understanding beyond most people. "I do see the need for more clarity," she says, "but I'm not sure that something sponsored by a sugar provider is going to give the most unbiased slant". And it's not being unfairly singled out, she says. "We as a nation need to be aware that sugar is, in [its] various forms, almost ubiquitous throughout our food. I agree that we need to understand more but it doesn't get away from the main message that most of us are eating too much sugar."

Subscribe to the BBC News Magazine's email newsletter to get articles sent to your inbox.