As far back as 1972, British physiologist and nutritionist, John Yudkin, tried to warn us about sugar in his book ‘Pure White and Deadly: The Problem of Sugar’. He was largely ignored and instead fat was singled out as the significant dietary evil. Now, finally, health authorities and governments have appreciated the seriousness of the health problems associated with excess sugar consumption. Attention is finally turning to strategies to combat over-consumption in a bid to respond to the current obesity crisis. One of the most favoured strategies is a sugar tax. But is it really the answer?

Taxes vs genetic programming

Taxes on sugary foods have been implemented around the world, with the latest in the UK receiving Parliamentary approval last week. But, is a tax on high sugar drinks and foods the answer? There are currently no long-term studies to evaluate the success (or otherwise) of the taxation of sugary foods on reducing consumption or benefiting health. On the contrary, in 2014 Fletcher and colleagues concluded, there is "...virtually no evidence of non-linear or threshold effects” [of taxing sugary drinks], whilst a 2013 study concluded, “Small excise taxes are likely to yield substantial revenue but are unlikely to affect obesity rates. Ultimately, the effectiveness of earmarked health programs and subsidies is likely to be a key determinant of tax success in the fight against obesity.”

There is already confusion around the effects of the tax on consumer behaviour with reports of an increase in sugary drink sales in Mexico, despite an initial drop following the introduction of a tax. In Finland their original sugar tax was scrapped after the EU said it was unfair as it only targeted certain products. In the US studies failed to find any beneficial effect of such taxes.

Tobacco taxes are often cited as the successful precedent for taxing unhealthy food and drinks. However, whilst smoking is considered a non-essential (bad) habit, food is essential for life and sugar is intimately linked to energy generation in the body. It’s part of our evolutionary heritage to seek out energy-dense, sugary, foods because they weren’t as readily available as they are today. We’re genetically programmed to want to gorge on sugar to store what we can to carry us through the lean, ‘famine’ times. Unfortunately, sugary foods are everywhere now, but our natural desire for them hasn’t changed, hence the enormous challenge to overcome an addiction that is deeply genetically rooted. Taxes may well increase demands for cheap food with consumers switching to substitute foods that cost less, but they’re not likely to make any difference to people who are merely responding to our natural genetic programming.

A tangled web

A British Medical Journal (BMJ) investigation in 2015 looked at the revolving doors and close links between Big Food sugar corporates and key public health officials. Unsurprisingly, the ties between government advisory bodies and the food industry run disappointingly deep, raising questions as to the impartiality of the scientific advice behind current attempts to address the obesity crisis. Corporate profits and prioritisation of the health of the nation don’t make good bedfellows.

As evidenced by the fact that food manufacturers do not believe taxes are necessary, whilst it is relatively easy to replace the sugar content of fizzy drinks with non-nutritive, artificial, sweeteners, it is claimed to be far more technically challenging for baked goods. However, many companies are rushing to reformulate products in order to avoid their customers having to pay taxes.

The question remains whether Big Food will want to create truly healthy foods. Equally, will the food and beverage industry succumb to pressure to reduce levels of sugar? Profit margins have always spoken louder than health impacts and the challenge of lowering sugar levels whilst maintaining the same flavour and sweetness intensity usually means deploying a cocktail of artificial ingredients - an approach that isn't always popular with consumers who desire the 'white stuff' to which they are often both psychologically and physiologically addicted. Synthetic, non-nutritive sweeteners also bring with them their own range of health issues, which has the potential to drive people towards cheaper alternative sugary products.

Behavioural change rather than tax

We are strongly of the view that education will be a more powerful driver for change than punitive measures. Taxing people for responding to a deep genetic call that’s older than any of us makes little sense to us. Rather, it demonstrates how divorced from the key issues are mainstream healthcare and policymakers when it comes to the power of food and its influence on our health. Whilst the introduction of food taxes may have re-ignited the conversation about healthy and unhealthy eating, it’s not gone nearly far enough to really address the multiple factors relating to obesity and related, preventable diseases, including type 2 diabetes. Obesity is not caused by over- or under-consumption of any one nutrient. Rather it's about our lost connections to food as both medicine and nurturer, to appropriate physical activity and to a deep connection to ourselves, our communities and our missions in life. Overcoming the lack of self-empowerment in healthcare - and our general over-reliance on external forces such as government authorities, medical doctors and food manufacturers to feed us and keep us healthy, is central to the course correction that’s so desperately needed.


Empowering calls to action

  • Download the ANH-Intl Food4Health guidelines poster for your kitchen and make sure your protein and healthy fat levels are sufficient to keep you fuller for longer
  • Read more about our evolutionary heritage so you can better understand where your sugar craving comes from. It’s much easier to be in control of your craving if you understand why it’s there.
  • Reconnect with the joy of making healthy, unprocessed food and reclaim your vitality, whilst dealing with your (occasional) need to eat sugary foods. Beware of hidden sugars in processed, ready-made and restaurant foods.
  • Phase out added sugar from your diet slowly, over a period of time, remembering your opioid receptors don't take kindly to going 'cold turkey'. Lower the sweetness intensity in the foods you eat or make over a few weeks. Be aware that sugar is like a drug to the body and it will take time to ease your way out of your need for it. It will take commitment and effort to change the way you eat, but if you're ready and prepared it's so much easier.
  • As recommended by the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and Public Health England, free sugars i.e. added sugars, those that are not naturally-occurring in whole fruits and veg should not exceed 5% of total energy input (i.e calories) per day. In a 2000 calorie daily diet, that would be not more than 100 calories from sugars - i.e. no more than 25g (5 tsp) of sugar in a day. A 'full fat' (Classic) coke contains 35g per 330ml can!
  • Support a shift in your gut bacterial colonies and experiment with making fermented foods. Some colonies of bacteria are more dependent on sugars, so your cravings may not all be your own.
  • Increase your activity levels. You don’t have to be a gym bunny, but you do need to engage gravity and move more. Couple more movement with a better diet, as laid down in the ANH Food4Health guidelines, and you’ll start burning fat for energy instead of craving sugar.
  • And don’t ever underestimate the power of love and laughter to divert cravings and increase vitality!