For most of humanity’s time on Earth, sugar has accounted for a tiny proportion of the calories we consume. However, modern agriculture has transformed the situation. Two hundred years ago the average American or Briton consumed just a few pounds of sugar a year, today that figure stands at well over a hundred.
Furthermore, a great deal of the consumption is in liquid form. According to the National Diet and Nutrition Survey, British teenagers get nearly a sixth of their food energy from added sugar – and 40 per cent of that from soft drinks. This is not the diet that evolution adapted us for – the food industry is transforming us into a swarm of mammalian bees.
As reported by Deena Shanker for Quartz, this is doing us a power of no good:
“Researchers from medical schools in the US, UK, Japan, and Finland conducted a meta-analysis of 17 studies to find the association between type 2 diabetes and regular consumption of sugar sweetened beverages, artificially sweetened drinks, and/or fruit juice.
“For adults in the US and UK, drinking just one extra sugar sweetened beverage a day over 10 years was associated with an 18% greater incidence of type 2 diabetes, they found.”
Sugar intake is strongly associated with obesity, which in turn is associated with a range of adverse health outcomes. However, sugar-sweetened drinks appear to have a negative impact above and beyond the fat factor:
“When that was adjusted for adiposity (a measure of body fat), that association dropped to a still high 13%.”
No wonder then, that the British Medical Association is calling for a 20 per cent tax on sugary drinks.
But would a sugar tax work? In another report for Quartz Akshat Rathi highlights some recent research:
“A new study looking at the effectiveness of Mexico’s tax on sugary drinks—implemented in January 2014—found that by December purchases had fallen by 12% compared to a year earlier.
“Researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill found that, on average, purchases of sugary drinks fell by 6% in 2014. Those who didn’t buy a sugary drink may have instead bought bottled water, a sector where sales have increased by 4%.”
So judging the Mexican experience, it’s possible that a sugar tax would work. The question, though, is should it?
“Some have argued that soda taxes are regressive and disproportionately affect the poor… The average decline in sugar-sweetened beverages in the poorest section of the population was 50% more than the average. But that’s good news… since obesity and diabetes are particularly problematic for this section of the population, because they struggle more to afford healthcare costs.”
Though the public health lobby is often guilty of patronising the public, the same can be said of those on the other side of the debate. In particular, there’s a lot of rubbish talked about not depriving the poor of their ‘simple pleasures’ – as if any pleasure were more fundamental than good health.