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Food Matters Live – Lots of sweet debate

A big strand running through Food Matters Live is the whole tackling obesity challenge with a big focus on sugar. Lots of debate about the sugar tax, although it should be communicated more as a levy on soft drinks.

I think it is important to understand it fully before having a view on it.  This is a tax only at sugar sweetened beverages and it is quite unique.  Many countries have some kind of tax on soda but the UK has done something a bit different.  The tax intends to instigate change at an industry level rather than charging consumers more for their soft drinks, although that could happen depending on how industry pass on costs to their customers.  With a multi level tax with a level that is exempt and with a 2 year period before the tax is implemented, there is time for industry to reformulate drinks so tax can be reduced or even eliminated so reducing consumers intakes of sugar.  If drinks contain less than 5g of sugar per 100mls then there is no tax to pay, there is one levy for between 5 and 8g per 100mls and another for above 8g per 100mls.

Despite a lot of resistance from industry we are already seeing change.  Change was happening slowly, there had been commitments from various soft drinks manufacturers which they say was in response to consumer demand.  But it is hard not to notice that now that everyone is talking about sugar and it seems that the tax is staying, how much quicker things are happening.  Big popular drinks are making big changes, the latest to make a big announcement is the company who own Lucozade and Ribena, both drinks were in the highest category and their sugar will be cut to 4.5g per 100mls.  That is below the tax threshold.  Given that Lucozade currently has more than 13g per 100mls at the moment and that Lucozade is a big seller – that is a lot of sugar that will not be consumed.

While the company states it was not as a result of the sugar levy, more that they are responding to the demand of consumers to have healthier drinks and has been in the planning for some time.  It is hard to deny however that the tax and the debate that is has created didn’t have some effect, certainly making it happen quicker.  And, as other countries and cities are also introducing soft drinks taxes which affect these global companies then there is a bigger pressure on companies to reformulate.

We hear again and again that this tax won’t fix childhood obesity as an argument against the tax.  No one who has argued for the tax or even the government has said that this is the silver bullet.  Of course this measure alone is not going to fix childhood obesity and there is a lot of debate on whether the tax will result in a measurable drop in calories from sugar sweetened beverages particularly in children.  But when you see data on the amount of sugar and calories that come from sugar sweetened beverages in children’s diets it is hard to argue that change here won’t be beneficial.  Sugary soft drinks contribute a whopping 40% of sugar to the sugar intake of teenagers, intakes that far exceed WHO recommendations and the picture is similar for younger children.  When we also consider the impact of soft drinks on dental health and the statistic that the biggest cause of hospitalisation of children is teeth extraction, there is another big reason to do something.

This levy and all its controversy has made a splash and positive changes are happening as a result.  Hopefully the ripples will continue to spread and encourage a push from consumers to demand more from manufacturers.  We need more reformulation informed by evidence in other sectors of the food chain.

We need consumers to see this as not a reduction of choice or ‘nanny state’ but much more about food production becoming more responsible and accountable for the health of their consumers.  Somehow we have to make this as important as the bottom line for share holders and make better food production and formulation economically sustainable in a way that it is not currently.

Obesity cannot be tackled by any one move, there are so many factors that contribute to obesity.  There is agreement however that the choice that consumers are presented must be shifted, the way in which foods that are high in calories but poor in nutrients are advertised needs to be altered, the way that pricing makes those foods cheap.

I have heard a lot of negative comments on the tax and that it is it the thin edge of a raft of ever increasing taxes on food which will affect poorer consumers most.  However, with good innovation, evidence based good practice guidelines on reformulation and nutrient profiles we can change the landscape of foods without affecting the poorest consumers.

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