Do you agree with Floella Benjamin on mandatory sugar reduction targets?

Here’s a bit of controversy to liven up a Wednesday evening.

Floella Benjamin has written for Politics Home’s Central Lobby arguing in favour of mandatory sugar reduction targets. It’s another of these issues that you can use liberal principles to argue both for and against:

Many overweight children grow up to be obese adults and there are often serious health consequences for those affected, leading to tremendous pressures on the NHS, through the dramatic rise in type 2 diabetes, heart problems, some cancers and a wide variety of other conditions that require treatment. High sugar consumption is resulting in early tooth decay and is by far the highest cause of hospital admissions amongst 5-to 9-year-olds.

It is not too dramatic to say that if we could solve the obesity crisis, we may go some way to solving the crisis in NHS funding.

The challenge of reducing and reversing the powerful trend of obesity is one that we simply cannot afford to lose, so I especially welcome the Prime Minister’s recent comment that it is just as serious as the smoking issue. The reduction in smoking has been one of the great public health successes of modern times and should give us the confidence to know that we really can overcome the obesity challenge if we give it sufficient priority.

I believe a duty only on sugary drinks will not have sufficient impact because so many of our everyday processed foods contain surprisingly high sugar levels.

So the Government should not only address the educational and environmental factors that cause obesity but they should also immediately start to introduce mandatory sugar reduction targets, applicable to all firms in the food and drink industry, in order to improve child health.

Opponents of targets will argue that the state should not interfere in personal consumption – after all, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle does not count for doing things that harm yourself. Others will say that large corporations are damaging us by making processed products that are really bad for us and they need to have limits set for them. Others still will argue that this is all about personal responsibility and nothing to do with the state. Those people tend to get quite judgemental about people who struggle with their weight in a way that is profoundly unhelpful.

I think that there are many things that need to be done to make sure that people are encouraged to and have the skills to eat healthily. I don’t think being obsessive about weight and BMI is always the way to go. Developing healthy habits is probably the most important thing. When I was growing up, everyone knew how to cook. Nowadays, so many of us rely on ready meals and other convenience food rather than actually making things from scratch. It would benefit us all to eat a wide variety of foods – and if you can have as many of them in as close to their natural state as possible, so much the better.

There’s a poster in my local health centre that shows how much bigger muffins are today than 30 years ago, with today’s carrying some 250 more calories. We know that measures regulating cigarette advertising and putting warnings on packets has reduced smoking. Food is much more complex, but can some of the same principles be carried across to something that is rapidly becoming the biggest public health problem? Over to you.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Alisdair McGregor 13th Jan '16 - 9:45pm


    For a start off, what exactly is a “Mandatory Target”. The entire concept is well-meaning but doomed to be ineffective and overall a waste of time and money.

    “Opponents of targets will argue that the state should not interfere in personal consumption – after all, John Stuart Mill’s harm principle does not count for doing things that harm yourself.”

    Quite right, it doesn’t. To lay out Mill’s point in full;

    “That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right… The only part of the conduct of anyone, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.”

    Just in case anyone missed it, the important part again:

    “He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right…”

  • nigel hunter 13th Jan '16 - 10:26pm

    One possible way to start the ball rolling would be to reduce the plate size from12″ to 9″. From a full 12″ to a full 9″ is a reduction and you can still feel satisfied. The app that is available should be widely advertised in all media outlets and in the NHS. Equally this could go hand in hand with a campaign to put the ‘sugar lump’ on ALL processed foods etc. this way people can make up their own minds as to what to eat.

  • The spread of Type 2 diabetes will bankrupt the NHS. Reduce and cut out sugar from drinks and processed foods. I am sure JS Mill was in favour of private health care.

  • Chris Rennard 13th Jan '16 - 10:44pm

    This was the debate today about the possibility of a sugar tax

    My question was:

    Lord Rennard (LD):
    My Lords, does the Minister accept that the introduction of a modest sugary drinks tax should be a win-win policy in that, if it works, people would be deterred from consuming those drinks, switch to alternatives and lead healthier lifestyles, and, if it does not work, it would raise money much needed by the NHS to deal with the problems of the obesity and diabetes epidemics?

    Lord Prior of Brampton:
    My Lords, as I said earlier, the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Health are thinking long and hard about what should be part of the obesity strategy. I am not sure that the noble Lord is right when he says that a modest tax would have much of an impact; it would have to be a significant tax to have a major impact on the consumption of sugary drinks.

  • @ Alisdair McGregor

    1. Even if one accepts J.S. Mill’s principle, it surely cannot apply to children who are dependent on adults to exercise choice to provide food for them. The child as an individual is not sovereign and does not exercise choice.

    Mill in fact had a pretty miserable childhood at the hands of his philosophical father..

    2. So far as adults are concerned It is nonsense to say : “He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinion of others, to do so would be wise, or even right”………….. Why not ?………… Because it affects wider society in terms of NHS costs which the rest of us have to pay for in order to bail out.

    There is a huge difference between the right to exercise individual choice and irresponsible self indulgence by adults which puts a financial burden on the rest of society. The principle already applies to tax on cigarettes and alcohol.

    I prefer John Donne’s “No man is an island entire unto himself”and also Charles Dicken’s critique of utilitarianism as epitomised in Mr Gradgrind.

  • Unsurprisingly, I agree with Alisdair. This sort of authoritarian claptrap has no business being pushed by a Liberal per.

    The idea that obesity costs the NHS money is a total lie as well. Firstly: BMI is utter rubbish and has been proven to be so multiple times. Secondly, even if it wasn’t, people dying sooner costs the NHS far less than them living to old age and having frailty and dementia.

  • andrew emmerson 13th Jan '16 - 11:00pm

    Mostly what I’d like is miserable authoritarian puritans to butt out of my life, and other peoples life and stop trying to hurt the poor with “well meaning” punishments for daring to have access to cheap food and drink.

    You don’t know how to live my life better than I do, so but out stop interfering

  • “The idea that obesity costs the NHS money is a total lie as well”.

    Oh really ? See if this sweetens you up.

    “NHS SPENDING ON DIABETES ‘TO REACH £16.9 BILLION BY 2035’ Wednesday 25 April 2012

    A new report published in the journal Diabetic Medicine has projected that the NHS’s annual spending on diabetes in the UK will increase from £9.8 billion to £16.9 billion over the next 25 years, a rise that means the NHS would be spending 17% of its entire budget on the condition.

    The Impact Diabetes report also suggests that the cost of treating diabetes complications is expected to almost double from the current total of £7.7 billion to £13.5 billion by 2035/6.

    Preventable complications
    Authored by the York Health Economic Consortium and developed in partnership between Diabetes UK, JDRF and Sanofi Diabetes, the report highlights the large percentage (79%) of NHS diabetes spending that goes on complications – many of which are preventable. Investing in the checks and services that help people manage the condition and thereby reduce the risk of complications could actually be less expensive than the current approach.

    The report quantifies the current costs of direct patient care for diabetes (which includes treatment, intervention and complications) and indirect costs of diabetes, such as those related to increased death and illness, work loss and the need for informal care, and also predicts the UK’s future costs of diabetes. According to the report, the total cost associated with diabetes in the UK currently stands at £23.7 billion and is predicted to rise to £39.8 billion by 2035/6.”

  • Eddie Sammon 13th Jan '16 - 11:22pm

    I’m against the state intervening heavily to ban “bad things” without proper support for those with addictions.

    I used to know someone who was a bit of a lefty, an old woman, but she smoked and she was worried the state was going to keep attacking her right to smoke. This is not a selfish desire – when she was on her death bed the two things she was asking for was cigarettes and family. Seeing a loved one cry for a cigarette on a death bed is a sight to behold.

    So my point is: people need to be careful when they are recommending heavy state involvement in people’s lives, because it seems to me that the state doesn’t always know best.


  • Alisdair McGregor 14th Jan '16 - 12:08am

    @David Raw did you read Jennie’s full comment? People who live unhealthy lives die (on average) earlier. Thus, overall, the cost to the NHS is lower.

    It’s therefore a complete lie to say that Sugar, Smoking and other unhealthy habits cost the NHS money.

    If people want to live unhealthy lives, let them. It’s their business if they do, and they can take the consequences.

  • David: diabetes is not obesity. There’s a correlation, but as we all know correlation is not causation.

  • Jennie
    A large body of experimental data generated in laboratory animals strongly supports the notion that high-fat diets are associated with impaired insulin action. It appears from animal studies that saturated fats, in particular, have the most detrimental effects.

  • Clare Brown 14th Jan '16 - 7:00am

    This is not about stopping individuals from exercising their right to eat sugar. If I want to make a fully informed choice to eat a rubbish diet I will always be able to do that. There are lots of reasons why obesity is increasing and one of them could be over reliance on cheap processed food which contains lots of sugar, refined carbs etc. Unfortunately for many families these are a major part of their diet. For some adults it is possible that they are making a fully informed choice to eat a poor diet of their own free will. However for many adults and of course children their poor diet is a symptom of other issues which have not been their choice. As a society we should address poverty, stress, social isolation and deprivation, poor housing (some people may be relying on a microwave and lack the space or equipment to cook properly), lack of education and skills. In the longer term some of these measures may help improve people’s diets and health. In the short term I don’t see the issue with also attempting to improve the food that people are eating now.
    I don’t see how the harm principle applies to a problem which affects us all through the impact on the NHS, affects children who are being raised on a. Poor diet, and ultimately may not be an act of complete free and fully informed choice by the people who are eating the food.

  • Alan Depauw 14th Jan '16 - 8:48am

    Adults wishing to smoke, drink and eat excessively should be allowed to do so as long as they don’t harm others.

    It’s that last bit that causes concern. Even setting aside the cost to the NHS, passive smoking and driving under the influence do affect others and society has accepted very restrictive countermeasures. Nothing reduced drunk driving more than the fear of loss of licence. Nothing reduced smoking prevalence more than the imposition of heavy excise duties. It should be noted that such sanctions have proven far more effective than information campaigns alone (as proven when compared with experience abroad).

    Virtually nothing, however, has been done about excessive eating and more particularly about the role of sugar.

    But to gain widespread acceptance for effective measures, people have to believe that overeaters cause harm to others.

    Again, we should set aside the cost to the NHS. Should we go down that road, we risk ending up determining the perfect potential patient. For example, should we be seeking to prevent other behaviour that gives rise to costly treatment, such as participation in various sporting activities?

    But a more evident harm exists and it is that caused to children. Parents do not allow small children to smoke or drink alcohol, but some do allow them to overeat. The reasons are varied and other than in the most extreme circumstances we are not about to consider such behaviour as abusive and remove their children from them.

    Therefore, given that harm is being caused to the most defenceless in our population; given that information campaigns alone are not particularly successful; we should act and the only effective recourse is through taxation.

  • Clare Brown 14th Jan '16 - 9:05am

    It’s not just about feeding children a poor diet, the impact of obesity and diabetes on the next generation starts as soon as a mum becomes pregnant. Women with high BMI and diabetes are at higher risk of complications in pregnancy and birth and poor maternal health can affect the developing baby.
    Plus this issue is also about cultural norms. When children grow up seeing certain types of food as normal daily diet then it is not always true to say that as an adult they are making a deliberate and conscious choice to eat them.
    Taxation and labelling are not the answer to health inequalities but they have a part to play.

  • Mick Taylor 14th Jan '16 - 9:13am

    You could certainly argue that parents are harming their children by feeding them a diet high in sugar and that therefore reducing the amount of sugar in the products they eat is within the JS Mill principle of ‘harm’.

    The point is that the sugar is a largely unnecessary component of the foods in question.

  • Peter Davies 14th Jan '16 - 10:08am

    In terms of sugar consumption by primary and pre school children, we are talking about something that adults do to children rather than something individuals do to themselves. State intervention here (like free nutritious school meals) should not be problematical.

    I also agree with Chris Rennard that taxing sugar is not a problem because raising a bit more money for the NHS would be no bad thing. Would it be possible to just redefine confectionery for VAT purposes to include anything above a maximum sugar content?

  • Barry Snelson 14th Jan '16 - 11:13am

    No. Where will this well intentioned interfering in the privacy of citizens take us next?
    A tax on bacon? (but not on quinoa – obviously). A tax on ordinary lattes? (but not skinny soya milk lattes). A tax on tight jeans? (to protect the nation’s sperm count and reduce the NHS bill on fertility treatments).
    What next?
    Why can’t these people who persist in looking over the shoulders of others and tut-tuting just get on with their own lives.?

  • Oh heaven forfend that people might consume unnecessary things because they’re enjoyable!


  • Chris Rennard 14th Jan '16 - 12:26pm

    The link to Hansard for yesterday’s brief discussion about sugar tax has now changed to:

  • A couple of people have mentioned taxing sugar. Floella Benjamin is talking about mandatory sugar reduction targets, because she doesn’t think a sugary drinks tax will be effective.

    So what’s illiberal about this? No one will stop you choosing to add the sugar back yourself if you want.

    I can see some merit in this, particularly for processed food and drink aimed at children. There are some processed foods for children that people consider to be relatively “healthy” that actually contain far more sugar than many realise e.g. cereals. Children aren’t making an informed decision beyond nagging their parents, and many parents don’t realise how much sugar is involved because the information is obfuscated or hidden in very small print. Various labelling schemes agreed with the food industry don’t seem to have been effective, so I consider it’s an issue that is appropriate for Government intervention.

  • Can t see what is authoritarian about an idea Floella Benjamin makes very clear is aimed at corporate mass producers of low quality garbage some above are calling , patronisingly , cheap food for the poor ! Our very noble , in every sense , Baroness, is not even saying one thing against individual consumers , indeed she is helping us as individuals make a choice in favour of many ,or whichever ,product we like , but all of them would have less garbage in them !I am a health conscious vegetarian , I cannot for love nor money find even basic sliced brown bread that does n t contain sugar ! I am not sure the proposal is correct or would work , but the motive is a good one , greater choice is something I am passionate about , greater choice of lower priced healthier food can only be a good thing ! Agreeing with the views above on Mill , one of my biggest heroes , this helps kids vulnerable to the vulgar greed of mass production oriented big boys and girls , corporations , even parents , though the latter , like I said are in a struggle to find anything without sugar ! Mill favoured the death penalty , times change !

  • paul barker 14th Jan '16 - 1:48pm

    We already accept the principle for tobacco & alcohol so why is sugar so different ? Of course sugar is a food in that it has calories, but in that sense so is alcahol. Sugar is one of a group of products, along with tea & coffee, that are both foods & drugs. We accept the principle of nudge taxation for some so why not others ?
    The particular problem with sugar is that unlike coffee or alcohol it is put into vitually all processed foods, includings things that appear to be savoury, even strict vegans would need an extra effort to avoid sugar.

  • P. S. I like a sweet taste , and fructose , a more natural fruit sugar, is best , raw cane brown sugar next ,and honey , wonderful ! When are these ever widely utilised ?, corporations it s time to take take the greed out of ingredients !

  • @ Alisdair McGregor and Jennie Rigg

    I do wish you would look at the evidence instead of making ill informed libertarian assertions… to which is added the questionable illiberal morality of Darwinian theory.

    You could start with the 2010 NHS Report “The economic burden of obesity”. It’s available on the internet.

    Here’s the Executive summary :

    1. Estimates of the direct NHS costs of treating overweight and obesity, and related
    morbidity in England have ranged from £479.3 million in 1998 to £4.2 billion in 2007.2

    2. Estimates of the indirect costs (those costs arising from the impact of obesity on the
    wider economy such as loss of productivity) from these studies ranged between £2.6
    billion and £15.8 billion. Modelled projections suggest that indirect costs could be as much as £27 billion by 2015.2

    3. In 2006/07, obesity and obesity-related illness was estimated to have cost £148
    million in inpatient stays in England.

    4. In Scotland, the total societal cost of obesity and overweight in 2007/08 was estimated to be between £600 million and £1.4 billion. The NHS cost may have contributed as much as £312 million.

  • Andrew Emmerson 14th Jan '16 - 3:17pm

    Firstly, this is aimed at ordinary people, no matter which person it targets. Benjamins authoritarian goal is to control the diet of ordinary folk. She may think it’s for the better, but plenty of bad ideas come from noble intentions.

    Secondly there’s tonnes of evidence that this will disproportionately hurt the poor, so it’s not patronising to say this is about taking cheap food for the poor of the table, because like it or not that’s exactly what’s going to happen.

    I can’t even comprehend the logic of “i’m passionate about more choice, so to do so, i’m going to create more rules which massively restrict food choices”

    Why is sugar different to alcohol and tobacco. Easy food is a necessity, the second two are luxuries. I don’t particularly like the nudge taxing on either. I think it’s wrong, but there’s a clear difference between necessity and luxury.

    There’s a good article that it’s longetivity not obesity that costs the NHS

    but also worth noting in all of this. Rates of childhood obesity are in fact falling. Adult obesity is flatlining and Sugar Consumption has fallen.

    This is nothing more than an indefensible moral panic.

  • Barry Snelson 14th Jan '16 - 3:26pm

    There are serious libertarian principles at stake here and we should think carefully before we accept that the state should manipulate our diets. There are many activities that cost the NHS and could be deemed to be big corporations luring us into becoming a health burden. Motorcycles, skiing holidays and pogo sticks for example (and I’ve injured myself on all of them – not recently, granted).
    McDonalds is not forcing anyone to eat their milkshakes. If you disapprove go for a nice green tea and leave others to their own personal freedoms.

  • @ Andrew Emmerson I’m sorry but quoting Christopher Snowden’s Spectator article butters no parsnips. Snowden is part of the right wing think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs. He also has links with Forest the pressure group funded by the tobacco industry to give a pseudo veneer of respectability to the tobacco industry’s activities.

    @ Barry Snelson “There are many activities that cost the NHS and could be deemed to be big corporations luring us into becoming a health burden”. You got that bit right.

  • Andrew Emmerson 14th Jan '16 - 4:14pm

    I see you’re playing the man not the ball David, Well done.

  • Alisdair McGregor 14th Jan '16 - 4:19pm

    @Nick Baird

    Which returns us to my original question: What exactly is a mandatory target for? By what means are you going to achieve that target? Inevitably it will become apparent that the only lever the government has on this issue is that of cost; the question will be one of the implementation of duties on unhealthy food.

    If the argument being made was one of *subsidies* for healthy food, then this would be a different argument. But it isn’t.

  • @Alisdair McGregor

    Speaking for myself, and not Floella Benjamin, I think this is perfectly doable.

    I see the problem as hidden sugar in foods where you don’t necessarily expect it. You buy a bag of sugar and know you’re getting sugar. You buy sweets and you know they will be high in sugar.

    You could, for instance, require processed foods that have more than X% sugar added to them to be labelled and stocked as confectionery. So if someone wants to sell breakfast cereal containing lots of sugar, it gets labelled as such and stocked next to the Mars bars.

  • Alisdair McGregor 14th Jan '16 - 4:57pm

    @Nick Baird classing them as Confectionery would of course make them subject to standard rate for VAT – at which point I can only refer you to Andrew Hickey’s comment upthread.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 14th Jan '16 - 5:35pm

    @AndrewEmmerson: There is a certain irony in you accusing someone of playing the man not the ball when you referred earlier in the thread to “miserable authoritarian puritans.”

  • andrew emmerson 14th Jan '16 - 5:49pm

    @Caron but i didn’t play the man I played the ball. I engaged with the arguments at hand as presented. I didnt stick my fingers in my ears and go “la la la im not listening to him he doesn’t agree with me”

    Besides I can’t think of anything more miserable or puritanical than sugarless tasteless food.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 14th Jan '16 - 7:29pm

    No, Andrew, that earlier comment really lowered the tone and I think you should express yourself in a more respectful manner. Similarly, I think you are showing great disrespect to people of a different view in your comments above. Others have presented actual evidence.

    Please conduct yourself in a more respectful manner in your future comments. If you can stick solely to the arguments and stop being rude to people, the thread will be a lot more pleasant to read.

  • Ruth Bright 14th Jan '16 - 8:27pm

    Subsidise British grown fruit and veg instead.

  • Caron. Really sorry to interfere, but please don’t be too hard on the young man.
    My only worry is that he ought to be doing a bit more work instead of diddling about with a computer. Hasn’t he got rather important matters to deal with in May ?

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 14th Jan '16 - 8:41pm

    @David Raw: Everyone is entitled to a break from work and I certainly don’t think we should be making judgements in that regard.

  • @ Caron Lindsay. Quite right, point taken. Not sure whether to put a wink or a smiley face after that.

  • Caron , I think I am perhaps right in thinking the quotation marks in the original article have given the strong impression that most of the above article is by Baroness Benjamin but half s by her and half by you ?I was a bit confused when I went to the link and then saw that , am I right , the interesting discussion points re Mill are yours ? It would seem our , in my view , terrific peer, Floella ,a national treasure now in a national institution , and a much undervalued contributor to the debate as seen above in some of the exagerated and , yes , dis respectful comments , indeed she has made a relatively modest but heartfelt proposal ,in typically Liberal and Democratic cross party sort of a way !And , Andrew Emerson refrain , if you would , from mis quoting me , I am not for restricting any choice , but for having a wider choice of healthier food !

  • Andrew Hickey
    High blood glucose (sugar) levels result in the body turning that glucose into fat. Its the fat that causes Type 2 diabetes .The body needs sugar(muscles and brains can’t operate without glucose from the blood stream) . Dangerous low levels of blood glucose means those with Type 1 go into a coma.
    In the days when I had little money I went out and bought a small fresh pineapple for lunch for five baht.
    Anyway eat healthy food and watch your weight, you don’t want to inject yourself with insulin everyday.

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 14th Jan '16 - 10:30pm

    @Lorenzo I thought it was obvious which bits were my opinion and which bits were quotes from Floella’s article. Sorry if that is not the case.

  • No , I have to say , Caron , something to do with the indentation , usually when its you or one of the team theres a clearer paragraphing , it wasn t an issue for me , I am a big fan of the both of you in this article and elsewhere, there was something about the latter part of it that seemed like it had that sense of the objective and subjective that made it seem like you , it didn t need a Poirot to prove it ! I would add that I am surprised it generated controversy or argument , not disagreement , of course its natural , the extent of the anti view , and from one or two more social Liberally inclined , takes me by surprise , and the manipulative form of argument , makes me think one or two might NEED TO BEHAVE MORE ……….SWEETLY !!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Rebecca Taylor 15th Jan '16 - 12:02pm

    I could possibly agree with Baroness Benjamin’s proposals on mandatory sugar reductions (maximum sugar content?) if they would apply only to food products designed and marketed specifically for children. This wouldn’t stop any food manufacturer from making, marketing and selling a given product or prevent any adult from purchasing and consuming it or even giving it to their children. It might however help parents make informed choices, as it would be easier to distinguish between high and low sugar food products.

    NB: of course it would generally be better for children’s health if they ate as little processed food as possible, given that processing food generally reduces its nutritional quality. However, as Liberals we can’t dictate what people feed their kids, although we can support health/nutrition education for children and their parents.

    An alternative solution is one suggested by Jamie Oliver (I don’t agree with him on many things…) which is to label sugar content by number of teaspoons. It’s much easier to understand the sugar content of a product when expressed in teaspoons of sugar than the current grams per 100g/100ml labelling, which might not mean much to many people.

    For example, the chocolate protein shake (post exercise recovery drink) I drank this morning after running into work has 4.4g/100ml sugar, which is low sugar (it contains sweeteners), but many flapjacks (sometimes seen as healthy) have higher sugar content (and overall calories) than a Mars bar, which would probably surprise many people.

    p.s. I AM aware that I’m a bit of a sports/nutrition geek ; )

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