Sugar tax digested

Some very big news was announced during the recent unveiling of the government’s Budget in Parliament. In fact, as the pages of numbers were presented by a smiling Chancellor, this news was so unexpected that it momentarily distracted everyone’s attention away from the Budget’s finer details. But what could attract our focus from where the Chancellor was locking his beady eyes on, in order to balance the books? I am, of course, talking about the announcement of the sugar tax. It was met with many cheers in Parliament and the good news was swiftly spread by the media to quickly dominate every news bulletin.

Hooray, we all thought, and it’s about time! Because it was not as if health campaigners hadn’t been arguing the case for a sugar tax for years. The highest profile to push for the tax, Jamie Oliver, even resorted to charging a levy on sugary drinks in his restaurants last year while the NHS announced in January that they would be introducing a 20% tax on all sugary drinks and foods served in NHS cafes by 2020.

However, even when there was mounting evidence of the tax’s potential effectiveness that was impossible to ignore with live examples and the opportunity to literally witness how it is influencing health behaviour in Mexico, the chances of a sugar tax being introduced in the UK was still felt to be unsurmountable. Therefore, the announcement of the tax prompted much back-slapping and high 5ing among the Chancellor and his mates and campaigners celebrated while Jamie Oliver tweeted a triumphant ‘We did it guys!!’. It was such a relief to know that we could all relax now as the government was finally doing something to address the growing obesity rates. Phew!

Of course, the delayed reactions to the other surprises in the Budget soon took hold and the media was highjacked once again by Tory party drama that was played out like a budget reality show. As the sugar tax story took a back seat to tell-all interviews and heartfelt resignations as politicians ‘consciously uncoupled’ themselves, it is no wonder that many people never got to grips with it. Therefore, I thought I would try to digest the essentials of the sugar tax in order to find out what it really means.

First of all, the sugar tax will not even be introduced until 2018, so for now, nothing has changed. But from 2018, companies producing or importing sugar-sweetened drinks containing more than 5g per 100ml will be subject to the tax although, just to confuse things, smaller producers will be exempt. There will be two bands of the tax—one for drinks with more than 5g per 100ml and a higher levy for drinks containing more than 8g sugar per 100ml. This means that drinks such as Coke and Um Bongo will be firmly in the higher tax band as they contain almost 11g sugar and 10g sugar per 100ml, respectively. Vimto and Coca Cola Life will sit in the lower tax band as they contain close to 7g and 6g sugar per 100ml. However, orange Tango will not be subject to the sugar tax at all as it contains just over 4g sugar per 100ml. But just because it won’t be taxed doesn’t mean that Tango is a ‘healthy’ option. It may contain ‘6 of your 5 tangs a day’ but it also has more than 14g sugar per can which is almost half of the maximum daily intake of sugars for anyone aged 11yrs+.

Which brings me to the second point about the sugar tax. The tax will not affect pure fruit juices and milk-based drinks such as smoothies, milkshakes or coffees. This may seem bizarre when the sugar content of many of these drinks is also incredibly high. For example, every 100ml of cloudy apple juice contains more than 10g sugar, orange juice has more than 8g sugar and Starbuck’s smallest Coffee Frappuccino packs in almost 16g sugar. However, the tax is aimed specifically at combatting our high intake of fizzy sugar-sweetened drinks because they are implicated in the growing rise of obesity and are a heavy contributor to the high level of dental caries and tooth extractions among children. In addition, these types of drinks do not have any nutritional value besides energy and unlike fruit juices and milk-based drinks, they tend to be cheap and consumed in very large quantities.

The last point worth mentioning about the sugar tax is that the money estimated to be raised by it is a whopping £520 million per year. The Chancellor proudly announced that this new revenue will be used to fund more sport in primary schools. This was quite a relief to all those sitting on the front benches of Parliament because the Government has previously been accused of not investing enough to contribute to the legacy of the 2012 Olympics. Unsurprisingly, hosting the Olympics had not immediately compelled the high numbers of overweight and unfit children to get off their own schoolyard benches and play sport. In fact, the number of primary children meeting the government recommendations for physical activity is shockingly low and the situation becomes absolutely dire as children hit their teenage years, especially for girls. However, by looking at the fine print of the sugar tax, it is clear that although the tax will be applied to the whole of the UK, it will only fund sport in primary schools in England. So English secondary schools will definitely miss out but Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland can do what they want with their share of the tax. So not exactly a united front against obesity.

But in the end, what most people most want to know about the announcement of the sugar tax is how this will affect them. As the tax will not be introduced until 2018, there are still many unanswered questions, particularly about the effect of the tax on the price of drinks. For instance, when the tax is imposed on the companies who produce or import sugary drinks, will they then pass on the levy to the consumer? Will the companies also push up the prices of their other drinks whether they contain sugar or not? Or will the manufacturers reformulate their products or stop producing sugary drinks? No one knows and it’s anyone’s guess but surely, companies will have to recoup their costs from somewhere.

A minority of sceptics of the sugar tax have meanwhile accused the Government of behaving like a nanny state and have questioned where this sugar tax will end. They warn us that countries such as Hungary, adopted a ‘public health levy’ in 2012 that is levied on high salt, sugar and caffeine containing ready-made and processed convenience foods, including soft drinks and energy drinks. And although Mexico is often cited as a sugar tax role model, who’s to say we won’t copy their lesser known levy that is inflicted on foods that have high caloric density? What will become of us if they also start taxing our crisps, chocolate and confectionary in the UK? But what if we become healthier? Perhaps it is wishful thinking but maybe it would force us to actually think twice about what we are buying and eating instead of filling ourselves up with cheap foods bought more out of habit and convenience than anything else.

For now, that is the sugar tax, fully digested, and surely time will tell on its true effects. It may not be introduced as soon as many people would like and perhaps the use of the monies raised by the tax could be used more effectively. But at least the tax has been finally announced and that has to be a step in the right direction. Inadvertently, the government may have scored an own goal as this tax may just encourage the public and health campaigners, alike, to argue for more. Because over time, as more people fully digest the inner workings of the sugar tax they will only identify more areas where public health should trump the profits of companies.

But now for an Easter-themed recipe. You may still be eating your chocolate and have had your fill of Easter puddings but this recipe for Hot cross buns will beat all others. As you would expect, it is very healthy but it is also incredibly easy and produces the best hot cross buns (in my children’s opinion).

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