A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages may promote better nutrition

 

There’s more to healthy eating than just calories

Last week, Dietitians of Canada  (of which I am a long-time member) released a position statement recommending that an excise tax of at least 10-20% be applied to sugar-sweetened beverages sold in Canada.  The association is taking a strong stand as there’s no doubt about  the negative impact of these products on the health of the Canadians.

There’s also plenty in the way of support for this tax with the  following organizations  endorsing Dietitians of Canada’s position on taxation and sugar-sweetened beverages:
•    Heart and Stroke Foundation
•   Canadian Diabetes Association
•    Childhood Obesity Foundation
•    Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada
•    Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems
•    BC Healthy Living Alliance

It’s hoped that this tax would help to discourage people from buying these beverages. It certainly has done so in Mexico after a tax was introduced (but more on that later).

Consider that sugar-sweetened drinks  contribute significantly  to the total sugar intake of Canadians, especially for adolescents, with a  staggering 7-8% of their total energy intake being from sugar-sweetened beverages.

Drinking these sugary drinks is linked to carrying excess weight, obesity and chronic diseases in adults. The figures show that  15% of Canadians’ total daily caloric intake comes from free sugars, which includes all added sugars as well as sugars naturally occurring in honey, syrups and fruit juice.
That’s above the maximum of 10 % recommended by the World Health Organization as a measure to decrease the risk of a host of diseases globally.

A single can of sugar-sweetened soda can contain up to 40 grams or 10 teaspoons of sugar, about 80% of the WHOs recommended limit for the average adult (based on a 2000 kcal diet).  The Dietitians of Canada defines sugar-sweetened beverages as soft  drinks (soda or pop), fruit drinks, sports drinks, tea and coffee drinks, energy drinks, sweetened milks or milk alternatives, and any other beverages to which sugar has been added.

In a story on the topic, CTV News asked, “Should Canadians pay a sugar tax on food and drinks?” They point out that tax idea  comes from Mexico, where over 70% of adults are overweight or obese.  To help combat the health crisis, the Mexican government brought in a 10% tax on sugary foods in 2014.

The results: just one year later, the sales of the taxed products dropped a whopping 12 %, according to a study published in the British Medical Journal.  The country also  saw a general increase in water consumption.  In some population groups, the consumption dropped even more. In the most at-risk group, those in a low socioeconomic category, by December 2014, the consumption of these drinks had dropped by 17%.

Of course, there are critics. The CTV report states, “while sales in Mexico dropped, there has yet to be a study that makes a definitive link between the country’s sugar tax and a drop in obesity rates. One study found that Mexico’s tax only cut about six calories per citizen per day.”

But the question must be asked, if the consumption of these drinks has dropped so dramatically but  there isn’t a big shift in calories, what is going on?

It’s very simple. It’s well known that if you decrease your consumption of calories from one food, you make up for them with  calories from elsewhere. It’s simply natural to do so. Your body requires a certain number of calories and if you consume fewer from one source, then you usually compensate for it.   Otherwise people would simply fade away. In order to actually lose weight following the avoidance of a food , a person has to focus on not increasing their intake of something else.

There has been some debate as to whether the body compensates when sugar-containing drinks are consumed. It’s been thought that the body doesn’t recognize these calories as food but the fact that Mexicans aren’t decreasing their caloric intake when they cut down on these drinks brings this theory into question.

In any case, the difference of only 6 calories per day means that while there are fewer sugar-laden beverages now being consumed in Mexico, these people are eating something else. Could it be more healthy fare such as fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds or whole grains? It is indeed possible. Only more research will tell that story but in the meantime, the tax is working on decreasing how many sugar-sweetened beverages Mexicans consume.

Let’s help Canadians by doing the same.

 

What are your thoughts on a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages? Please share them in the comment section below.

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Categories: Nutrition News, Weight Management

Author:Rosie Schwartz

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian and writer.

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