Relaxing agricultural policies for sugar in Europe may raise sugar consumption and harm public health, according to experts writing in The BMJ.

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Researchers say recent changes to agricultural policy in Europe may increase sugar intake among the general public.

There has been much focus on the negative health implications of sugar consumption as of late, with sugar intake cited as a major contributor to obesity and diabetes across the globe.

In response, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a new guideline earlier this year recommending that adults and children reduce the daily intake of free sugars – such as glucose, fructose, sucrose and table sugar – to less than 10% of total calories, with 5% of daily calories being the preferable level.

While such a recommendation has been welcomed, the authors of this latest report – including Emilie Aguirre of the University of Cambridge in the UK – note that there has been little focus on how recent changes to agricultural policy in the European Union (EU) may impact sugar consumption among the general public, despite it being an “important determinant of health.”

The authors explain that the European Common Agricultural Policy – which regulates the supply and price of numerous agricultural products for EU member states – has protected the sugar market by keeping prices high and inhibiting foreign imports.

“The EU also maintained a production cap on high-fructose corn syrup of about 5% of all sugar production, affording additional protections to the European sugar beet industry by preventing large-scale replacement of sucrose with high-fructose corn syrup,” notes Aguirre and colleagues.

For the past 10 years, however, the EU has been liberalizing such protections, and by 2017, almost all of them will have been abolished. In their report, the authors discuss the potential implications of agricultural policy changes for public health.

When agricultural reforms were first initiated in 2006, the European Commission predicted there will be a significant reduction in the wholesale prices of sugar, which will lead to an increase in sugar production.

“Early indications suggest these predictions are broadly accurate,” note the authors. “The price of European sucrose has fallen about 40% to around €400 ($441) a ton, with analysts expecting an increase of around 20% in sugar production after 2017.”

Fast facts about sugar
  • Around half of the US population consumes sugary drinks on any given day
  • One can of cola contains around 7 tsp of sugar
  • In the US, around 16% of children and adolescents’ total daily caloric intake comes from added sugars.

Learn how much sugar is in your food

They point out that dropping the cost of sugar will increase its appeal to food manufacturers, who will deem it an “easy, inexpensive” way to increase palatability of their products, which may lead to higher sugar content in foods that already contain sugars.

Of particular concern is the potential increase in use of high-fructose corn syrup – a sucrose substitute that is commonly added to sodas and fruit-flavored drinks – as a result of the reforms. High-fructose corn syrup has been cited as a major player in excess sugar intake in recent years, with one study finding that sugar consumption in the US rose by 20% in the 15 years following its introduction.

What is more, the report states that food manufacturers may also increase marketing of foods high in sugars because they are likely to benefit from higher profit. “This may encourage industry to resist regulations designed to reduce the use of sugars,” the authors add.

One group in particular who may be affected by the agricultural policy reforms for the sugar market is those of lower socioeconomic status – a population that is most likely to opt for cheaper food products.

“Consequently, this reform may disproportionately increase sugar consumption among lower socioeconomic groups, contributing to widening health inequalities,” explain the authors.

Emilie Aguirre and colleagues claim the new reforms have been put in place to benefit the sugar industry, with no thought as to how such changes will impact public health, despite predictions that there would be a rise in sugar consumption as a result.

In response to the changes, the authors suggest governments may need to set targets in order to lower sugar contents in processed foods and put measures in place to ensure manufacturers are complying.

In addition, they state that policymakers should monitor the effects of the reforms on public health, adding:

Greater attention must be paid to the role agricultural policy plays in determining the price, availability, and consumption of sugars, especially as recent policy changes could increase consumption, particularly among the lowest socioeconomic groups.

Europe and the UK must explore a set of short- to medium-term responses to address the projected increase of sugars in the food supply. In the longer term, they must integrate agriculture and health policies to help begin to address the larger structural factors affecting diet and population health.”

Earlier this year, a Spotlight from Medical News Today investigated whether we should eliminate sugar from our diet to benefit health.