Calls to reduce sugar in soft drinks rage on. A new study argues that reducing the sweet stuff in these fizzy drinks by 40 percent by more than five years could prevent 1.5 million obesity and 300,000 diabetes cases in the United Kingdom.

The forecasted impact was seen greater in teens, young adults, and low-income families who consume more of the widely marketed sugar-sweetened beverages.

These were the findings of researchers at Queen Mary University of London led by Professor Graham MacGregor, writing in the journal Lancet Diabetes and Endocrinology. The team used data from the national diet and nutrition survey as well as the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA).

A Little Less Sugar Won't Hurt

According to the authors, people's appreciation of sweetness can adjust to a slow reduction in sugar consumption.

"It is unlikely that the proposed strategy will influence the consumers' choice provided the gradual reduction is done over five years," they explained.

Previous research, they added, showed that calories lost from sweetened beverages are unlikely to be replaced by other sources. Reducing sugar levels, too, are seen to only slightly influence the cost of the drink, therefore not a threat to the soft drink industry's sales and profits.

The authors recognized, however, that the move will be met by the sugar industry with resistance.

In the long term, the proposed sugar reduction is believed to lower cases of obesity and type 2 diabetes.

A likely barrier to implementation: the power of advertising, which Dr. Tim Lobstein — policy director at World Obesity Federation London — said is beamed at children through their use of media.

"Policies can be developed... as well as the implementation of a soft drinks tax, as proposed by Public Health England, the Parliamentary Health Committee, and the ambassador for healthier diets, Jamie Oliver," Dr. Lobstein said in a comment to the new study.

Sugar Tax, Finally?

Lead study author MacGregor is chair of Action on Sugar, which campaigns for a tax on sugar-laden drinks similar to that implemented in Mexico.

Studies echoed that the Mexican tax, introduced in January 2014, had started to lead to a reduction in soft drink intake in the child obesity and diabetes gripped country.

Public Health England welcomed the findings of the report and backed a sugar tax. According to its Chief Nutritionist Alison Tedstone, sugary drinks are the largest sugar source in the diet of the youth.

"We believe a programme to reduce the sugar from the sweetest drinks — alongside other measures like controls on advertising and marketing — would lead to a significant drop in the amount of calories consumed," Dr. Tedstone said.

'Purely Theoretical' Claims

The BDSA opposed the move, arguing that a soft drink tax won't impact obesity. Its Director-General Gavin Partington cited the "hypothetical claims" in the study as contrary to proof that sugar intake in the UK is on the decline even as obesity soared.

University of Cambridge's Stephen O'Rahilly, director of its metabolic research laboratories, called it a "purely theoretical" study filled with assumptions that reduce confidence in how much sugar reduction will be beneficial.

For Richard Tiffin, Reading University's director of the center for food security, a much bigger reduction in sugar consumption is necessary, and that a tax slapped on soft drink would be "too blunt an instrument" to achieve great health gains.

In November, the Health Committee of the British parliament called for strict measures that include imposing a tax on sugary drinks to curb child obesity. An insider, however, said Prime Minister David Cameron voted it down, with other proposed measures in the works.

Photo: David Brown | Flickr

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