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Sugar Drinks Tax – will it really work?

We recently commented on the UK Government’s report calling for Bold and Brave action to tackle childhood obesity.  This included a number of recommendations, including a sugar drinks tax on full sugar soft drinks.  With George Osborne’s recent announcement in the March 2016 budget to introduce a 20% tax on high sugar soft drinks, we looked at the arguments from various angles:

The nutrition argument on the sugar drinks tax

David Cameron has been under pressure for some time from the medical profession, medical charities and high profile campaigners to set a 20% tax on fizzy sugar-sweetened drinks.   The cited reasons for this decision were:

  1. In the UK, one fifth of children are overweight or obese when they begin school, and this figure increases to one third by the time they leave primary school.
  1. Rotting teeth are the most common reason for children aged between five and nine to be admitted to hospital, and dentists are seeing more young children having the majority of their baby teeth removed.

An overwhelming body of evidence suggests that our children are getting fatter, have poorer dental health, and as obesity is primarily caused by excess calorie intake in relation to energy expenditure, the youngest generation are not taking enough exercise.

With a third of all children’s intake of sugar from fizzy drinks, we at Eat Balanced ask, is a sugar tax on soft drinks a good thing?  Especially when the tax revenues will be spent on increasing physical activity in children?

The poverty argument on the sugar drinks tax

There is a strong correlation between poverty and obesity.  In fact, the number one reason we hear for why families do not buy healthier food and drinks is because they are seen as too expensive.

A recent study argues that the sugar drinks tax will not stop people from poorer backgrounds buying full sugar drinks.  Published by the international research journal, Dr Bratanova states that, “Feeling poor and feeling unequal can simultaneously influence eating behaviour, pushing people to approach high calorie food and consume larger amounts of it.”

On the other hand, Public Health England state that “Increasing the price of high sugar food and drink, whether through taxation or other means, is likely to reduce purchases of these products, at least in the short term.

A third angle here is that many commentators believe that the resulting price increase will only encourage consumers to “downgrade” to cheaper brands of the soft drinks, which will offset some or all of the price increase.  Worse still, the consumer could actually opt for the larger bottles, where we have noticed promoted 2 litre bottles of full sugar colas actually costing LESS than a 500ml bottle!

Evidence?

While looking for examples of other countries who have implemented a similar tax, following the introduction of a tax on sugar sweetened drinks of 10% in Mexico, an overall average 6% reduction in purchases of sugar sweetened drinks was seen in 2014, with higher reductions in purchasing of around 9% on average being seen in lower socio-economic households.

The industry argument on the sugar drinks tax

As a small business, at Eat Balanced we know how hard it can be for businesses to compete in a tough, global economy.  Yes, full sugar soft drinks do contain a lot of sugar, but is it unfair to penalise certain suppliers and customers, when there are so many other foods which contribute to excess sugar?

AG Barr, makers of Irn Bru, experienced a substantial drop in the value of its shares as soon as the sugar drinks tax was announced in the chancellor’s budget. They stated that they had already cut sugar levels so the measure was “extremely disappointing”.

However, measures have been taken in the past to improve public health with little effect on health, like the UK Government’s Responsibility Deal (RD) in 2011, which set out a series of voluntary measures for the food and drink industry to sign up to.

Though reformulation was most commonly listed in the delivery plans, something which we at Eat Balanced make our mission to do, the act of signing up to the voluntary agreements motivated disappointingly few organisations to implement such interventions.  The “softly, softly” approach seemed to have failed. Therefore, in order to make an impact, the UK government seems to have decided that a specific sugar tax might be one of the few options to get companies to actually make a difference.

The tobacco and alcohol argument

Although the sugar drinks tax is a bold and brave action which sends out a huge message to the food and drink industry, as well as the public, it is a long way from being the solution to the much bigger picture.  In the same way that banning smoking in public buildings was only one significant early step towards the huge improvements that we have seen in the instance of smoking in the UK.

In our opinion, the sugar drinks tax will only work as part of a larger obesity strategy.  Indeed, Joanna Lewis, Food for Life Strategy and Policy Director commented: “The Budget announcement of a sugary drinks tax from 2018 is a hugely symbolic and significant step forwards for the long-awaited Childhood Obesity Strategy.”

Evidence?

The 3A’s approach was adopted successfully by the tobacco and alcohol industry.

The strategy is hoped to adopt a similar approach and address the issues relating to:

  • Affordability – e.g. like the new sugar tax, making high sugar drinks less affordable
  • Availability – e.g. like the smoking ban, making it less easy to smoke in public
  • Acceptability – e.g. like the ban on drink driving with a number of advertisements making it socially unacceptable to drink and drive

In conclusion

A Government tax is a drastic action and can be seen by some as an unfair measure.  However, with childhood obesity reaching crisis point, this suggests that it is an issue of child protection.  The team here at Eat Balanced believe that it sends a huge message to the food and drink industry, and perhaps healthy eating and reformulation will now be taken more seriously.  If reformulation is stepped up and seen as a crucial part of a wider strategy it’s something which can only be a good thing.

References

Health and Social Care Information Centre, National Child Measurement Programme – England, 2013-14, Dec 2014

Royal College of Surgeons Faculty of Dental Surgery, The state of children’s oral health in England, January 2015, p5

Public Health England, Sugar Reduction – the evidence for action, October 2015, p23

Public Health England, Sugar Reduction – the evidence for action, October 2015, p23

Food labels on nutrition – confused?

Are you fed up with misleading food claims and back of pack nutrition information?  According to market research by Neilson, 60% of consumers worldwide are confused by food labels.  With the weekly food shop becoming a dreaded task. more work is needed to help people understand the pros and cons of the nutritional information.

Misleading food labels

Organic

Food labelled as organic, is perceived to be healthier according to research.  In a comparison test, participants thought organic labelled food tasted lower in calories and fat, and perceived the foods to be higher in fibre.  The non-organic labelled food was in fact, almost identical in terms of calories, fat and fibre.

The result of this is what’s called the ‘health halo’ affect and marketers use this to make foods seem better for you.  So what other tactics make you think a food tastes healthier?

Green Vs Red

In the highway code, the colour green means GO and the colour red means STOP.  But researchers have found these colours have a similar meaning in the food world.

People were shown images of chocolate bars labelled red and green, containing  information about the  nutritional value of the product, and asked to choose the least calories. The subjects felt that the green label indicated a more healthful product, rather than red, although the number of calories contained in them was the same.

Green_food_labels_healthier

Food Labels – Green Vs Red

This has huge implications on nutritional labelling as junk foods can hide behind green labels.  In the US, M&Ms and Snickers have green front of pack calorie flags, a dirty tactic which consumers are more vulnerable to at the checkouts.

What food labels mean?

We looked at different food labels with terms such as low fat, high fibre, low salt and what they mean in terms of your nutrition.

 

[table]Food Labelling term, What does it mean?
Reduced Fat, Less than half gram of fat to its original
Light, 50% less fat/sodium than the original product
Zero Trans Fats, Less than half a gram of trans fat per serving
Cholesterol Free, Less than 2mg of cholesterol per serving
Lean, Less than 10g of fat; 4.5 g of saturated fat; & 95 mg of cholesterol per 100 g
Low Fat, 3g or less of fat per serving
Good Source of, Minimum of 10% of RDAs
High Source of, Minimum of 20% of RDAs
Free Range, Animals allowed access to outside
Organic, 95% organic ingredients
Natural, No added colour; artificial flavours; or synthetic substances
Low Sodium, 140 or fewer mg of sodium per serving
Multigrain, More than one type of grain in the product
Whole wheat, Food with whole wheat flour[/table]

Hopefully we’ve managed to shed some light on food labels and what they really mean when it comes to your nutrition.