by Alejandra "Alex" Ruani — Get free science updates here.
Have you heard the news?
Harvard researchers reported in an abstract, presented at an American Heart Association scientific conference, that they have linked 180,000 obesity-related deaths worldwide to sugary drinks.
Heart disease, cancer and diabetes for the first time in human history pose a greater health burden worldwide than infectious disease.
Should sugar then be taxed?
Health scientists contend that there has been a massive rise in diseases such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes since we began eating more sugar contained in processed food. And since excessive sugar consumption shows similar effects as alcohol and tobacco, it is arguable that sugar should be controlled and taxed just the same.
Earlier this year, the World Health Organisation announced that the recommended level of sugar in people’s diet should be reduced fiercely.
What does this mean?
With the current recommended figure of 10 per cent of total intake from “free sugars” – mainly refined and fruit sugars – this ought to be cut in half, to 5 per cent.
Dame Sally Davies, the Chief Medical Officer for England, highlighted the addictive nature of sugar and commissioned ongoing research. Because of the addictive quality, she believes that the public needs to have a “big education” on how “sugar packed” juices, fizzy drinks and processed foods truly are.
So if this is all true – that sugar is addictive and produces risk factors for disease – should it be under the control of government through regulations?
Something similar happened in Denmark. In 2011 Denmark imposed a fat tax on meat, dairy products, and cooking oil. This move was introduced to limit the country’s intake of fatty foods. Less than a year and a half later that tax was abolished. Besides creating burdens and uncertainty it was questionable whether it ever did work according to its intention, to improve public health.
Do we need a Sugar Police?
Unfortunately, sugar is like cheap alcohol – it’s available everywhere. Clearly it’s in those Crunchies, Kit Kats, and Smarties, but it’s also hidden in pies, canned beans, crisps, salami, and even gravy too! Added sugars make food more palatable and manufacturers have long since realised that this boosts sales.
Since 1990, consumption of sugar in Britain has increased by 31 per cent – now we eat 1.25 lbs (.57 kilos) per person a week! Is sugar intake then actually a form of addiction, especially given the point that many people cannot stop eating it once they start?
Paul van der Velpen, head of Amsterdam’s health service, described sugar as “the most dangerous drug of the times”, causing a rapid high followed by increased cravings.
Shockingly, researchers at the University of Bordeaux discovered that sugar has a bigger impact than hard drugs in the brain: their experiments showed that refined sugar can be 4 times more addictive than cocaine.
Sure, we don’t necessarily buy sugar like those 1 kg bags you see. It’s that “invisible sugar” and the inconspicuous ways the food industry sneaks it into things that sinks our ships and drives us deeper into addiction.
It is so bad, that we have dedicated a full module on food addiction in our Advanced Clinical Weight Loss Practitioner Professional Diploma course.
So back to the sugar tax.
Just what would the sugar tax do?
The measures around this tax would include limiting the availability of ultra-processed foods and sweetened soft drinks, and banning “junk food sports sponsorships”.
When you look at the sugar strewn industry and the way it has affected our obesity, heart disease and diabetes rates, it seems that in the end we’ll have to pay for it – either in health or taxes. So what is it going to be?
Robert H. Lustig, an American pediatric endocrinologist at the University of California San Francisco, believes it should be controlled like alcohol and tobacco.
Lustig’s specialty is childhood obesity and he reminds us of the struggle with the tobacco industry, where it was and what it’s come to. As he says:
We made it expensive, harder to buy, and harder to advertise. We kept it away from children. We made it taboo.
Can we really do this with sugar?
Especially when we’re talking about Big Food and Big Sugar. The food industry does not want to change. This is big money.
The obesity expert Philip James puts it this way: “The sugar industry has learnt the tricks of the tobacco industry. Confuse the public. Produce experts who disagree. Try to dilute the message.”
What do you think?
There is evidence that suggests taxing say soft drinks won’t curb obesity. Then there’s the other side who argue that regulation is the only way to constrain Big Food. Some doctors in the UK suggest sugar is a greater threat to public health than smoking.
So, what’s the real answer? Should sugar be taxed?
A tax on sugary drinks was introduced in the UK in March 2016:
Leave a comment below, add your voice to the conversation!
Alex Ruani leads the research division at The Health Sciences Academy, where she and her team make sense of complex scientific literature and translate it into easy-to-understand practical concepts for students. She is a Harvard-trained scientific researcher who specialises in cravings and appetite neurobiology, nutrition biochemistry, and nutrigenomics. Besides investigating and teaching the latest advances in health and nutrition science, Alex makes it easier to be smarter with her free Science Catch-ups every other Thursday.