The Facts about the Sugar Tax
(and a bit of my opinion)
So you may have heard that the government announced a ‘sugar tax’ in the latest budget which will mean that sugary drinks – particularly fizzy drinks – will cost an additional 18-24p per litre which would mean that a 1.75 litre bottle of coke will go from £1.95 to £2.39. Drinks with slightly less sugar such as Indian Tonic Water will increase by 18p per litre. It is intended that the money generated will be invested in children’s sports facilities – an arguably excellent cause.
There are several reasons why this has been decided upon but the basic reason for it is that the sugar in fizzy drinks makes us fat and rots our teeth and when we’re fat with rotten teeth we cost the country more money than if we were slim with healthy teeth.
The problem with sugar is that it has been processed so much that our bodies don’t need to do any work on it. It is like eating pre-digested and highly concentrated fruit with all the good stuff (fibre and vitamins) taken out. For that reason, when we have sugar, it gets absorbed straight into our blood stream pushing our blood sugars up and making us release a hormone called ‘insulin’ which forces the sugar out of our blood stream and stores it as fat (essentially). When the sugar levels in your blood start coming down because the insulin has done it’s job, we start to feel hungry, tired and irritable and so we look for more sugar to get our blood sugars back up and the cycle starts again.
“But sugar is so delicious!” I hear you cry!
There is a good reason for that. When we were cavemen (and during other historical periods that I don’t know much about), we developed a survival mechanism to make sure that whenever there was an easy source of energy (like sugar) available, that we ate lots of it precisely TO store it as fat. This is because winter was always around the corner there wouldn’t be any berries around and you might not catch many wildebeest so you needed to lay down some fat so that you were ready for the times of starvation. Most of us (genetically speaking) only survived the caveman period because we were good at laying down fat!
For that reason, our senses tell us that sugar is GLORIOUS and our bodies even go so far as to tell our brains that something good is happening to encourage us to keep eating sugar.
Our world has evolved so that easy energy (such as sugar) is available EVERYWHERE but our bodies haven’t evolved to stop us from enjoying sugar so much and to stop us laying down fat so we have to rely on that ever elusive ‘self control’.
The reason sugary drinks have been targeted is because they don’t provide us with any other nutrition apart from energy. We don’t need them for anything. Milk has some natural sugar in it but it also has lots of calcium and protein so it is useful. Fruit has natural sugars but it also has fibre and vitamins and minerals. Sugary drinks just give us sugar (and colourings and flavourings), so they’re good for nothing except making us put on weight and rotting our teeth.
One of the problems with the sugar tax is that it will impact people from poorer communities much more than those from wealthier communities. It is well documented that children and adults with a lower household income drink significantly more sugary drinks and are more likely to be overweight than those who are wealthier.
Some see it therefore, as a matter of education because (it may be assumed that)
“richer = better educated and therefore if we educate the poor they will cut down on their sugary drink intake.” EASY PEASY. Sadly it is not that simple.
We know from years of health education that knowledge does not equal action. Just knowing about how much sugar is in our drinks and the damage it can do will not be enough to make people change.
Take smoking and alcohol for example. We all know how bad smoking is for us and yet nearly 20% of the adult population still smoke. We all know that alcohol is poison but we happily guzzle red wine or neck shots of vodka and it is perfectly socially acceptable to do so.
Social acceptability is one of the big reasons that poorer families are more likely to consume sugary drinks. If your mum drinks a can of sugary energy drink and eats chocolate cereal for breakfast, what are you going to have for your breakfast? Muesli and hot water? I don’t think so. Your Mum will think you’re a freak. I am not in the least bit convinced that if that can of energy drink was 12p more expensive it would change anything at all. Are you?
The same applies backwards of course; those from wealthier families probably don’t allow energy drinks and chocolate cereal in the house because Mummy doesn’t approve, so they are not socially acceptable.
The truth is, that when you are more financially comfortable; you have a roof over your head and know that there is money in the bank to buy food for yourself and your family. When you know that you have a job with a dependable salary and the support and love of your friends and family, you are much more likely to have the mental space to consider whether an energy drink and chocolate cereal is the right breakfast for you and your children.
If you are struggling to keep a roof over your head and don’t know when you’re next going to have money in the bank; you will choose convenience and familiarity because it is comfortable. Even if you know it isn’t the best choice, you probably don’t have the brain space to think about what else you might have for breakfast or the energy to fight with your kids over having milk instead of an energy drink.
Another potential issue is that we are all programmed to be particularly drawn to sugar as children because we are growing and so we need more energy. Children typically don’t like vegetables very much either. Most people, when they get to their early twenties (some a bit later) outgrow sugary food and drink and start eating more vegetables, it just happens naturally for most people. What if you have had your children before you have outgrown sugary drinks and sugary cereal and started eating vegetables? Are you going to be encouraging your kids to drink water and snack on hummus and carrots or to drink coke and eat sweets? Just a thought.
Lastly we have to consider our environment. There is a whole isle for sugary drinks in most supermarkets, the big manufacturers spend a fortune on advertising and sponsorship so they are always on our mind. In many convenience stores (where you’d have to shop if you couldn’t afford a car), there will be significantly more choice of sugary drinks that there will be of fruit and vegetables.
I don’t remember when cigarettes or alcohol were age restricted or when they started being heavily taxed because the health damaging effects were first acknowledged but I think that’s sort of where we are with sugary drinks and I guess the government are trying to take the first steps to sort it out.
In my opinion it would be better to stop the big companies from advertising on TV and using billboards and sponsorship deals to normalise their products but the cynic in me thinks that this would cost the government a lot in tax revenue rather than generate tax revenue (to invest in children’s sports facilities).
So, is it the right thing to make those who can afford it least pay more for the familiar and comfortable? Probably not, but the best minds in Public Health don’t know what the solution is so I sure don’t either.
I believe that in the future, we will look back at our generation’s sugar consumption the way we do now at smoking or encouraging drinking alcohol in pregnancy;
“Remember when we used to drink all that coke! That was mental.” but right now it’s normal so we keep doing it.
If you have any thoughts on this it would be great to hear them!
#Dietitian #SugarTax #Nutrition #Sugar #Cocacola #Redbull