Late last year, renowned TV chef Jamie Oliver made headlines in the UK, urging the government to implement a 20% “sugar tax” on sweetened drinks. He claimed that, on average, British people are consuming 40 cubes of sugar per day and blamed the rising consumption of free sugar for the obesity epidemic. While the UK government are still considering the idea of a “sugar tax”, other countries have successfully implemented such legislation and are seeing substantial benefits in public health.
What we really need to do is change peoples’ relationship with food…
Why is sugar being targeted?
Sugar is increasingly been viewed as a major contributor to obesity, which in turn leads to conditions such as type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and cardiovascular disease. According to the World Health Organisation, 13% of the global population is overweight or obese and the percentage is rising. An astonishing 25% of Australian children are now overweight or obese. By the time they reach adulthood, that number will grow to 63%.
What are free sugars?
Free sugars are those which are added to food or are naturally present in honey, syrups and fruit juices. This doesn’t include sugars naturally present in intact fruit and vegetables or dairy.
Free sugars are different from total sugars. Total sugars refers to sugar from all sources, including fruits and vegetables. This is why reading the sugar content on food labels can be difficult. Current food labelling legislation requires the declaration of total sugars only, NOT free sugars. So there is no way of knowing how much of the product you’re eating is made of free sugars.
Current levels of free sugar consumption
Data based on the Australian health survey suggests that 10% of the average Australian’s dietary energy comes from free sugars. The Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) published the Carbohydrates and Health report early this year, giving guidance on the consumption of free sugars. They recommend that our daily intake of free sugars should be less than 5% of our total energy intake. So what does that really mean?
image sourced from: Public health matters – Expert interview: New sugar recommendations
Is there evidence that a sugar tax would be effective?
Public Health England (PHE) recently published a report Sugar Reduction: the Evidence for Action examining the evidence supporting a tax on sugary drinks.
“…price increases, such as by taxation, can influence purchasing of sugar-sweetened drinks and other high-sugar products, at least in the short term, with the effect being larger at higher levels of taxation.”
As an example of this, 10% tax on sugar-sweetened drinks recently passed in Mexico. Mexico is infamously known for having one of the biggest weight problems in the world, with 32.8% of the population being obese. 163 litres of soda are consumed in Mexico each year (that’s nearly half a litre a day!). However, since the introduction of a soda tax in January 2014, Mexico has reported a substantial 6% reduction in the sales of sugary drinks.
The Australian cigarette tax, which started in 2013, included a 12.5% staged increases in tobacco tax over a four year period. Recent analysis has shown that the total consumption of tobacco and cigarettes was the lowest ever recorded in March 2014. This is an example of how a clearly defined government policy can have a positive impact on public health. Those who campaign for a tax on sugary drinks argue that it will have a similar effect by decreasing the purchase rate of these types of drinks.
Why might a “sugar tax” not be the best idea?
Firstly, free sugar isn’t the sole cause of obesity. In Australia, only 1.8% of the average adults’ intake (kJ) comes from soft drinks. In fact, the amount of sugar consumed through soft drinks has dropped, while obesity continues to rise, suggesting that other factors are also to blame. Demonising one food group will not have a significant long-term effect on obesity levels.
It could be argued that the government should focus on education, rather than taxation. While the introduction of a sugar tax would raise awareness of the health problems associated with too much sugar in the diet the effects would be short-lived. If we want to make a real change we need to educate the public on how to make informed choices and lead an active, healthy lifestyle. It is also possible that raising the price of sugary products may make them more desirable. Think of clothing. Which is more desirable: A $500 or a $5 pair of shoes?
What other methods could reduce dietary free-sugar at a population level?
Despite its recommendation to introduce a tax on sugary drinks, the PHE report made other recommendations which they expect will be more effective at combating the overconsumption of free sugars.
- Reduce price promotions on sugary products.
- Enforce guidelines about advertising and marketing aimed at children and adults across all social media platforms.
- Define high sugar foods for manufacturers, retailers and the public.
- Improve food labelling standards. Suggestions include banning terms, such as ”fat-free”, that are misleading and are often labelled across products with a high sugar content or labelling products with a symbol showing how many teaspoons of sugar it contains.
- Introduce of a clearly structured programme of gradual sugar reduction in everyday food and drink products, combined with reductions in portion sizes.
- Ensure the provision of healthier food and drinks in the public sector i.e. in hospitals, leisure centres etc.
- Ensure that training in diet and health is delivered to all those who have opportunities to influence food choices in the catering, fitness and other local authorities.
- Raise awareness and concerns about sugar levels in the diet. Encourage action to reduce intake and provide practical steps that people can use to lower their individual consumption.
A tax on sugary drinks may help in the short-term but it isn’t going to solve the obesity epidemic. What we really need to do is change peoples’ relationship with food. We celebrate birthdays and holidays with products loaded with sugar. We give children sugary treats as a “reward”. As adults, we often reward ourselves in a similar way. Have you ever thought “I’ve had a tough day. I deserve a take-away or chocolate tonight”? I’m not saying that we should cut out sugar from our diet completely, I just think that the way we view the role of sugar in our diet needs to change.