It is inaccurate to claim a sugary diet is as dangerous as smoking, former health secretary Andrew Lansley has said.
Mr Lansley said that instead of slashing the amount of sugar in consumers’ diets, the food industry should be allowed to reduce the level incrementally, otherwise people would not accept it.
The Commons Leader - who was health secretary until he lost the job in 2012 - said the analogy between sugar and tobacco was not appropriate, telling MPs the food industry had already reduced the amount of salt in food.
His comments came as a group of doctors likened the danger posed by a sweet foods to smoking tobacco as they launched a campaign to cut the amount of sugar in consumers’ diet.
Speaking during his weekly question and answer session in the Commons, Mr Lansley said: “We have had significant success in the reduction of salt in food but it has to be understood that this can only be achieved working with the industry on a voluntary basis … and it can only be done on an incremental basis.
“You can’t simply slash the sugar in food otherwise people simply won’t accept it. That is what they are looking for. I don’t think it is helped by what I think are inaccurate analogies. I just don’t think the analogy between sugar and tobacco is an appropriate one.
“I think we have to understand that sugar is an essential component of food, it’s just that sugar in excess is an inappropriate and unhelpful diet.”
Mr Lansley made his remarks as a group of health experts launched a campaign to reduce the amount of sugar added to food and soft drinks as part of an effort to reverse the UK’s obesity and diabetes crisis.
Action on Sugar - modelled on the successful Consensus Action on Salt and Health (CASH) - aims to help the public avoid products “full of hidden sugars” and encourage manufacturers to reduce the ingredient over time.
It says children are a particularly vulnerable group who are targeted by marketers of calorie-dense snacks and sugar-sweetened soft drinks.
Earlier, Professor Simon Capewell, an expert in clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool who is leading the campaign, said obesity and diabetes were already costing the UK more than £5bn a year.
He said: “Sugar is the new tobacco. Everywhere, sugary drinks and junk foods are now pressed on unsuspecting parents and children by a cynical industry focussed on profit not health.
“The obesity epidemic is already generating a huge burden of disease and death. Obesity and diabetes already costs the UK over £5bn every year. Without regulation, these costs will exceed £50bn by 2050.”
Like Cash, Action on Sugar will set targets for the food industry to add less sugar to products over time so that consumers do not notice the difference in taste.
It claims that the food industry would easily achieve a 20% to 30% reduction in the amount of sugar added to products, which it says would result in a reduction of approximately 100kcal per day or more in those who are particularly prone to obesity.
It says the reduction could reverse or halt the obesity epidemic and would also have a significant impact in reducing chronic disease and claims the programme “is practical, will work and will cost very little”.
The group listed flavoured water, sports drinks, yoghurts, ketchup, ready meals and even bread as just a few everyday foods that contain large amounts of sugar.
Advisers to the group include Professor Robert Lustig, of the paediatric endocrinology department at the University Of California, and Assistant Professor Yoni Freedhoff from the University of Ottawa.
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