I am not sure if you’ve heard about the recent introduction of new tax on sugary drinks that are sold in the UK. If you are like me and you would not touch politics with a stick, you may have missed it. But since it is a hot subject in the world of nutrition, this piece of news kept popping up in my news feeds last week.
If you follow Jamie Oliver’s work like I do, you are probably aware of his mission to end childhood obesity and what he has done so far fighting for improving children’s diet. Trust me, I am full of appreciation and support for his efforts. It has not been an easy battle. I am pleased to see that he is leveraging his popularity to shed light on issues that are far more pressing than picking the latest masterchef or whatever Kim Kardashian is wearing (or not) these days. I absolutely loved his series on his struggle to change children’s school meals in UK and USA (Jamie’s Food Revolution series, if you want to check it out). Way to go, Jamie! I honestly don’t know of any other celebrity going to such lengths to help eradicate a real life problem, right here, in our own backyards (or pantries, rather). So seeing comments on Jamie’s Facebook page about the victory regarding tax introduction, I felt relieved that all of the hard work is finally bringing real results on the highest levels. But then I realized something that made me reconsider joining the cheering party…
This is madness!
The statistics are shocking, when you really look at them. Obesity among children is skyrocketing – 31% of all children in Canada are either obese or overweight. (source). That is 1 in 3 humans, who are supposed to be full of energy, vitality and health is now facing serious health challenges related to their weight! With increased body mass index, a child is prone to developing multiple health issues including asthma, allergies and diabetes or even worse, cardiovascular problems and cancer. For the first time in the history of mankind we are possibly looking at a generation that is sicker than its ancestors ever were. It seems to be a turning point in our evolution when we will start seeing shorter lifespan despite all the health advancements. No, I am not exaggerating. This is real. It IS happening! I have seen it in my work at the hospital and in my practice.
Sugar is everywhere
As much as I would like to see all those food giants brought to their knees and pay through their noses for all the junk they sell, I do not think the tax that is imposed on sodas will change anything. Sorry Jamie.
As per one of the studies: “Consumption of added sugar in sugar sweetened beverages has been positively correlated with high calorie intake, and through it, with excess weight and obesity.” (source) Granted. However, what we seem to neglect is the fact that sugar is EVERYWHERE! Would you like to see top 6 common “food” items that are overloaded with sugar (and even considered a “healthy option” and highly recommended by mainstream dietary experts!)? Check out my blog post on those here. And right after that, please look through your cupboards discarding the garbage, if necessary.
It is not only about calorie count
If you think that the issue with sugar is only empty calories that make your pants put up a fight each time you try to put them on, you may want to reconsider such idea after this paragraph.
Sugar is an addictive substance. Some researchers say it is even as bad as cocaine in creation of dependence habits! Maybe that’s why we all crave it so much? And if it is so, do you think any addict would consider rising price of their substance of choice to be an obstacle in getting their high? I have to admit, my experience in this matter is very limited, but I would think that it does not matter that much to the person affected, unless the increase is significantly more they can actually afford.
And you don’t even have to be a sugar addict. The “feeling good” effect of sugar ingestion is triggered by serotonin release and is even stronger if the conditioning started early in childhood. Who wouldn’t like to feel good all the time, especially since there are so many things in our lives these days that make us feel exact opposite? How many of you had their boo boos “fixed” with a piece of chocolate or cake (thanks, grandma!) and are still reaching for those in an emotional or physical crisis?
Never, EVER, underestimate the power of money
If you really think you are hurting the big guys, think again! Truth of the matter is all of the multinationals producing soda drinks also own multitude of bottled water brands. With few exceptions, bottled water on our shelves is coming from exactly the same source as the sugary drinks down the isle. Take a look at this chart of top bottled water players… If they are slapped with a tax on sugar, guess what happens with sale of their “pure and healthy” water products? I can only hope you are as concerned as I am about increasing the sales of such. If not, I encourage you to check out this post.
Last, but not least, if the brands like Coca Cola or Pepsico are forced to limit sugar content in their formulations, I am already scared to imagine what they are going to use as a substitute. The consumption of artificial sweeteners has already been linked to numerous health concerns including cancer, but that does not seem to relate to sales figures of products and drinks with reduced calories (source). Not sure about your observations, but 99% of people I see purchasing those 0 calorie drinks or ordering their coffees with 5 sweeteners in them also happen to be the most obese. Interesting correlation, don’t you think?
We have seen the enemy and the enemy is us!
In conclusion, researching for this post I found this interesting and sobering article. It states that introduction of sugary drinks tax does not change consumer’s behaviour. At least not significantly. It seems like once hooked on the “white stuff” it is very hard to break loose.
So even though I feel the tax is a step in the right direction, I would not treat it as anything more than a baby step. Especially since heavily sweetened fruit juices and milk-based drinks, which are as high in sugar as sodas will be excluded from the tax (!). UK is not the first country to have this kind of legislation and the countries that have already implemented some similar measures had a very limited success. As the case of Denmark clearly demonstrates, people will always try to find a way to get their fix. Same in Mexico, attempt to reduce calorie consumption by increasing price of sugary drinks has had a little, if any success reducing the daily calorie intake only by 6 calories!
Food for thought
In my opinion it is much more important to educate the public on health dangers of their choices and to limit access to soft drinks for young children. If sodas are sold in schools as the only drink option, it is hard to blame children that they become dependent on it. The programming in the media also plays a key role in conditioning young minds and I think it should be severely limited, if not stopped all together. As a mother of two, I have witnessed how sugar dependence is created. Children are born with innate curiosity and appetite for whole, unprocessed foods. However, once they are exposed to sugar, they preferences change (mainly for reasons described above). The situation is even more dramatic if the only option they are presented with are sugar-laden processed products that provide minimum nutrition or none at all. It is only a matter of time until they become obese, sick food junkies, who, interestingly enough, are actually starving.
So ultimately, I do not believe any tax will change anything in this matter unless we, as consumers start saying NO to foods that are destroying our health. It is ultimately our own responsibility to take control over our own wellbeing and to create a community of health-minded families immune to marketing campaigns of colourful breakfast cereals. Bringing children to our kitchens and gardens and teaching them about importance of real food as opposed to reaching out for quick, drive-thru fixes is definitely a more sustainable option for generations to come.