Dispelling myths about sugars and health by the sweet food industries

| 1st November 2003
Action and Information on Sugars (AIS) was created by public health dentists and dietitians in the mid-1980s to dispel the myths about sugars and health propagated by the sweet foods industries. One of our greatest successes was a campaign to stop GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) claiming that its Ribena ToothKind drink ‘did not encourage tooth decay’. The claim was endorsed by the British Dental Association (BDA).

To counter this claim with scientific evidence, AIS commissioned a laboratory in Zurich to test whether this allegedly safe soft drink could in fact cause tooth decay. Ribena ToothKind failed the test. We used this evidence to formally complain to the Advertising Standards Authority about the misleading claim.

GSK spun out the process for two and a half years by insisting on four rounds of evidence, two outside expert assessments and two appeals. Six times during this period GSK and the BDA threatened me and one of my colleagues with legal action if we did not immediately stop our campaign and sign apologies they had kindly drafted for us.

But we were confident of our evidence, because the Zurich lab is the leader in its field. It is also the laboratory that GSK itself used in the initial testing of its product.

GSK appealed right up to the High Court, which found the claim misleading and therefore illegal. Despite this, the BDA refused to withdraw its accreditation. But the tooth-decay claim has now been removed from the product's labels and advertising.

There was no court fine for GSK, but the controversy has cost the company. Sales of Ribena ToothKind fell by 15 per cent in the year following the court case – cutting revenue by approximately £3m.

Jack Winkler is director of the London-based independent consultancy for consumer groups Food and Health Research, and chairman of Action and Information on Sugars

Sugar Resources

-------------- Books ----------------

  • Sugar Blues

 by William Duffy; Warner Books, 1975

Inspired by the crusade of Hollywood legend Gloria Swanson, this is the classic exposé of our generation's greatest medical killer.

  • Lick the Sugar Habit

by Nancy Appleton; Avery Publishing Group, 1988

Shows how sugar upsets the body chemistry and devastates the immune system - leading to a host of diseases. Included are self-tests to discover sugarholic tendencies and tests for food allergies, techniques to banish cravings, and plans to ease into a low-sugar life.

  • Sweet and Dangerous

by John Yudkin; Bantam Books, 1974

Yudkin was the first person to show that coronary heart disease was more closely linked to sugar consumption than the more commonly blamed saturated fats from animal foods.

  • Bittersweet – the Story of Sugar

by Peter Macinnis;; Allen & Unwin 2002

Excellent early history of growth of sugar trade, though scant information on 20th Century.

--------------------- Reports -------------------

  • Sweet and sour – the impact of sugar production and consumption on people and the environment

by Karen Frances, Vicki Hird, Tim Lobstein, Louise Stayte and Alexis Vaughan; Sustain 2000

  • Sugar, trade and Europe – a discussion paper on the impact of European sugar policies on poor countries

by Alexis Vaughan; Sustain 2000

------------------ Organisations -------------------

  • Action and Information on Sugars

address: Dept of Community Dentistry, King's Dental School, Caldecot Road, London SE5 9RW

tel: 020 7346 3462 fax 020 7346 3267

  • Food & Health Research

address: 28 St Paul Street, London N1 7AB

tel: 020 7226-1672 fax 020 7688-1636

  • The Food Commission

address: 94, White Lion Street, london, N1 9PF

tel: 020 7837 1228 fax 020 7837 1141


  • Natural Justice

address: University Laboratory of Physiology, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PT

tel: 01229 580055


  • Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming

address: 94 White Lion Street, London N1 9PF

tel: 020 7837 1228 fax 020 7837 1141


This article first appeared in the Ecologist November 2003