The developed world is currently in the grip of an obesity epidemic. Chronic disease rates continue to rise, with excess body weight putting us at greater risk of a number of deadly conditions like heart disease, stroke and diabetes. Our lifestyle choices, particularly our dietary ones, play a huge role in driving this trend.
In response, there has been a lot in the media over the years around the idea of sugar taxes, and more specifically, a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages like soft drinks. From a nutritional point of view, sugar-sweetened beverages contain little more than empty calories. They aren’t needed as part of a healthful balanced diet, and while it’s possible to enjoy them occasionally, there’s no section of the community that wouldn’t be better off not consuming them at all.
In addition to the excess calories we get from them, they are easy to overconsume, and research suggests that they don’t set off the same satiety response in the body as solid foods. The idea of taxing sugar-sweetened beverages isn’t about removing all sugar from the diet but about discouraging excessive consumption of it.
So might taxation be a viable way of influencing our dietary choices for the better, encouraging both the producers and the purchasers of these products to change their behaviours?
For example, a proposed model in the United Kingdom is to tax producers on the volume of sugar-sweetened beverages they make or import. Beverages would be expected to fall under two tax brackets: a lower one for drinks containing a reduced level of added sugar and a higher one for those containing added sugar above the lower bracket. Other models of sugar tax also seek to provide certain exceptions, such as milk-based beverages, which may also be good sources of nutrients.
Businesses are expected to pass this tax on to consumers, making sugar-sweetened beverages more expensive, with those having higher sugar content increasing in price more than those with lower sugar content. The hope is that when this increase in cost is passed on to consumers, they’ll buy less of the more expensive products and purchase unsweetened ones instead, or at the very least, be influenced to choose the cheaper, lower sugar options. And if a significant buying shift happens, with a substantial increase in sales for lower-sugar beverages, manufacturers are expected to prioritise the production of these healthier options.
Whenever policy is put in place in an effort to drive a population away from consuming one thing, assumptions are made about what they will consume. This can be problematic, because often, what people will start consuming instead of the taxed product doesn’t even exist.
Decades ago, we were encouraged to adopt a low-fat diet. There were no obvious problems associated with the advice. If people were to aim for lower fat whole foods, they’d decrease consumption of meats, butter and cream and increase eating vegetables, legumes, fruits and whole grains—exactly what public health advocates wanted.
However, over the years, something unexpected happened. Food manufacturers, wanting to reformulate their products to match this dietary advice, initiated low-fat versions of previously high-fat products. On the surface, it looked great, but these products were often much higher in sugar and refined carbohydrates than their full-fat counterparts. Rather than making a significantly healthy change by switching to these products, consumers were unknowingly continuing their poor diet, just in a different way.
Thus, advocating for people to eat less of one variety of unhealthy food doesn’t necessarily mean they’re going to automatically start eating a healthier choice in its place. Would discouraging people from sugar-sweetened beverages bring about similar non-beneficial results?
Furthermore, the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages isn’t the only contributing factor to the growing obesity problem. While it’s reasonable to attach some of the blame to these beverages, many other issues have combined to create our current situation. For example, how would a sugar tax help the portion of the population struggling with weight and dietary issues that have nothing to do with sugar-sweetened beverages?
While it’s easy to dismiss anything with the word tax as simply a revenue-raising exercise, the truth is that the many issues involved with driving up obesity rates take funding to help solve, and what better place to raise this funding than by taxing one of the issues?
Funds raised from a sugar tax could be used for interventions like encouraging and subsidising children’s sports and community exercise facilities. They could be used to create community gardens to ensure that more people have access to cheap, nutritious foods all year round. They could pay for community cooking classes and education programs to help people get in touch with food and give them a better understanding of their daily food choices. The list goes on, and such initiatives require money.
Governments around the world have been heavily taxing tobacco and alcohol for years, and coupled with community education campaigns, many countries have seen the usage of these substances drop over the years as a result. A sugar tax that decreases the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages won’t harm anyone, and it has the potential to be very beneficial.
So while the specifics of any sugar tax for sugar-sweetened beverages would require further work, the general idea appears to have far more positives than negatives. Such a measure would not be a silver bullet when it comes to our obesity epidemic, but that’s not the point, because no single measure can be. We should judge the success or failure of anything like this on whether it leads to positive change, either directly or through the initiatives it helps to resource.
Lastly, we need to keep an eye on the forest, not just the trees. If the past has told us anything about what happens when we try to influence the food people eat, the consequences are not always the expected ones. But that isn’t a good reason to give up. It’s a good reason to keep trying, armed with the lessons we’ve learned.
Power up your water
When it comes to beverages, water is the best choice. You don’t have to worry about how much sugar is in it, and it’s cheap and readily available. But not everyone loves the taste of water, and in any case, it’s always nice to have some variety in life. So here are some great ideas to give your water a flavour boost that won’t cause the sugar content to skyrocket:
Lemons and limes. A simple classic is to add a slice or two of lemon or lime to your water to bring a light, refreshing citrusy flavour to your water.
A helping of herbs and spices. Crushing some fresh mint in the bottom of a glass before adding water is a popular choice, but try experimenting with your favourite herbs and spices to discover new, exciting flavours.
Get big on berries. Berries are naturally low in sugar and also happen to be delicious! Throw a handful in with your daily water to give it a fruity twist and a festive colour change. Berries go in and out of season, but frozen versions are available all year round and can boost the flavour of your drink and cool it at the same time.
All of the above! Rather than turning to high-sugar soft drinks, try making your own taste sensation using all the above tricks. Fresh mint, a few raspberries and a slice of lime can make a delicious drink that’s full of flavour without being laden with sugar. Try a small piece of ginger and a slice of lemon, or a crushed cherry and a slice of lime.
Your options are limited only by your imagination. Think about your favourite foods—a jug of water with some slices of apple and a cinnamon stick will make you completely rethink apple pie! So enjoy getting creative and start drinking more water today!