Protecting the Future of the UK’s Oral Health
9 August 2021
Professor Philip Taylor, Dean of the Faculty of Dental Surgery at the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh, reflects on the Faculty’s involvement in a recent Government consultation on foods high in sugar and salt and why it is important steps are taken to help protect the future of the UK’s oral health.
The RCSEd Faculty of Dental Surgery recently had the opportunity to feed into the UK Government’s consultation on restricting the promotion of products high in fat, sugar and salt by location and by price. Much of the media coverage on the topic of junk food focuses on the UK’s obesity problem, but it is worth noting the huge effect this issue also has on the nation’s oral health. Type 2 Diabetes has a proven link with advanced gum disease in adults, so any reduction in sugar and fat intake would improve the dental health of the nation. Diets high in sugar are the principal cause of tooth decay in the UK and dental extractions because of decay caused by sugar consumption are the biggest reason for a child aged between five and nine to be admitted to hospital. Even sugar-free options of products like fizzy drinks can have a detrimental impact on teeth through acid erosion, with many people mistakenly assuming sugar-free items will be better for their oral health.
Some important steps have been made to better regulate how junk food products are advertised, particularly to youngsters. A 9pm watershed on junk food adverts has been introduced, which I am pleased to see come into force. Two new policies are also being introduced as a result of the consultation, which will impact how supermarkets can market products high in sugar and salt. Location restrictions will mean these products cannot be strategically positioned in store entrances, aisle ends and checkouts or their online equivalents in order to encourage sales. Retailers will also no longer be able to offer bulk discounts on junk food such as ‘buy one get one free’ or ‘three for the price of two’.
While this is a positive move, more needs to be done to highlight ingredients that are bad for dental health. I believe the government could go further, and it was disappointing to see the Prime Minister say he would not support higher taxes on salt and sugar in food. Initiatives like minimum unit pricing have been introduced in relation to alcohol with some evidence of success and this approach could be replicated for food items which shouldn’t be consumed on a daily basis. While people can still choose to buy these products which are safe to consume in moderation, we need to utilise every tool we can in order to help changes attitudes towards junk food.
These measures won’t be a quick win but it is important we continue to make steps in the right direction over time. Addressing this issue is even more important now as the nation’s oral health has been greatly affected by the pandemic through the restrictions on dental practices. It is vital we do everything we can to improve oral health, especially through educating our youngsters and not shaping their relationship with food through exposure to adverts for junk food.