Can the UK kick its sugar habit? We ask the expert | Sugar

We are a nation of sweet tooths, consuming more than twice as much sugar as the global average. But with too much sugar linked to serious health conditions, how can we wean ourselves off it? I asked Graham MacGregor, chairman of campaign group Action on Sugar.

Graham, I always joke that the only thing I stand to inherit from my family is diabetes. But recently I’ve been taking it seriously and cutting out sugar. It’s hard.
Well, it’s stuffed into everything.

I hate the impenetrable namesdextrose, sucrose, fructose. Why can’t they just say “sugar”?
That’s just one of the tricks of the food industry. Like how they’ll say something is made without added sugar because it uses a fruit concentrate. That’s still sugar. Refined sugar is a concentrate – just of cane or beet. The industry gets away with murder.

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You have experience fighting the food industry – you also founded Action on Salt, which successfully campaigned for industry-wide salt reduction. Are salt and sugar comparable?
They’re both hidden in vast amounts in our food, to make bad ingredients taste good cheaply, and are linked to problems such as obesity and heart disease. And they’re addictive.

Addictive? Really?
OK, well, if I’m being scientific I’d say they lead to habituation. Our salt taste receptors get suppressed over time, so you need more to get a salty taste. Same for sugar. Look, I’m not a sugar nut who thinks every health problem is sugar’s doing. But the evidence for healthy food’s positive impact is overwhelming.

What change would you like to see?
The same thing as salt: targets set for gradual sugar reduction. Now, food in the supermarket has 20 to 40% less salt and no one’s noticed. The issue with sugar is reformulating the products. So if a biscuit is roughly 40% sugar

Oh man, a biscuit is my only treat …
Don’t have biscuits. If you took out half the sugar, you’d lose a lot of bulk. Would you accept a smaller biscuit?

I’d choose a smaller one over no biscuit.
The point is, they’d need to put something back into the biscuit, a bulking ingredient that does the same as sugar but has fewer calories. The food industry is actually working on an ingredient like that.

That’s positive! Plus there are junk food bans coming – on advertising at the end of 2022; on buy-one-get-one-free promotions from April. Perhaps sugar will go the same way as salt.
The salt issue isn’t over. Action on Salt was lucky: it was a Labour government and they’d set up the Food Standards Agency to be beyond ministerial control. Then the Conservatives got in. I think Andrew Lansley was on the side of the food industry, because he made it responsible for policing itself. As one of my colleagues said, it was like putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. They stopped reducing salt further – we did a report about how many deaths this was responsible for.

But the bans would be good.
If they happen.

Could artificial sweeteners be useful?
There’s no evidence they’re toxic, but are they good? One has to be sceptical when there’s big money involved, even if it’s a natural sweetener. An oleander leaf can kill you and it’s natural – it’s probably the most dangerous poison out there. Actually, maybe novichok is.

Graham! I do not want to think about novichok. I’m off to not eat a biscuit!