Thanks to endless headlines about the topic many of us are likely aware of the health risks associated with the excessive consumption of sugar. Although strong conclusions from nutritional research can be difficult to make at the best of times, a fairly clear link has been established between the increased consumption of “free sugars” (sugars added to foods by the manufacturer or consumer that are not naturally present) and the global increase in rates of obesity and diabetes.
Although sugar can be found throughout our diets in a variety of products (some of which may surprise you) and a wide array of forms, the most highly vindicated product is likely the sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB, for short). Health experts have gone so far as to suggest that SSBs are a “significant driver of chronic disease and obesity”.
So, what can we do about this? Well, it’s not as simple as suggesting that people replace their favourite can of pop with a cool, refreshing glass of tap water.
How sugar consumption has become so prevalent in our North American – and even global – diets, the unexpected places where sugar hides and finally, what we can do from a policy perspective to address this issue will be the focus of this blog post.
Sugar Consumption in Canada
According to a report published by Statistics Canada earlier this year, Canadians consume up to 25% of their total daily energy from sugar. This is more than twice the recommendations made by the World Health Organization (WHO) stating that sugar should make up no more than 10% of total daily energy intake. What's more, sugary beverages were identified as being the top source of total sugars for all Canadians.
Why is our consumption so high?
This is a question with many potential answers - the first of which is fairly obvious.
Sugar tastes good - and makes us feel good.
This will come as no surprise to those with a sweet tooth – a group I certainly consider myself a part of. Experts have shown that when we consume sugar, it activates the brain’s reward system. In response to sugar consumption, our brains will actually release the neurotransmitter dopamine - which contributes to feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. For this reason, some have gone so far as to claim that sugar should be considered an addictive substance. Although scientists have yet to provide concrete evidence that proves this, many of us can attest to experiencing cravings, even feelings of withdrawal if we consume less sugar than we usually do. This feature of sugar certainly does not make it any easier to give up our favourite sodas – despite their negative health consequences.
Sugar is omnipresent in foods.
Avoiding sugary drinks and desserts is no guarantee that you are limiting your sugar intake. Unsuspecting food items like sauces, yogurt, salad dressing, baked beans, soups – all of these items often contain added sugars. One particular study examined over 85,000 packaged foods sold in the USA between 2005-2009 and found that an astounding 75% of products contained sweeteners. Furthermore, this same study reported that 77% of all calories purchased in the USA between 2005-2009 contained caloric sweeteners.
Why is sugar so widely used in food products? For starters, refer to the previous point about taste. Beyond this sugar also improves the colour, flavour and texture of foods and can help with the fermentation and preservation of products.
What should the government do?
The answer to this question, of course, depends on who you ask. Although there exists several proposed solutions, I will be focusing on the possibility of improving food labels and implementing a sugar tax.
Improved Food Labelling
For the past several years, health experts and consumers have been calling for improved labelling on food products. In response, the government began a consultation period for revamping food labels back in 2016. Throughout this period, several excellent ideas were put forth. One suggestion in particular that gained a great deal of support was to add an additional line on nutrition labels that would identify the amount of added sugar in the product.
Despite the popularity of this suggestion, it was ultimately rejected. Some suggest this decision was the result of lobbying from the food industry who ultimately disagreed with the proposal. Their approach was to question the available science by arguing that the human body doesn’t distinguish between added and natural sugars – so why make the distinction in the nutrition facts table? They implied it would simply confuse consumers.
Although I understand their perspective, I would argue the opposite. For one thing, this additional information would provide a greater degree of clarity and transparency to consumers. I think this would be especially helpful for products that contain both natural and added sugars. The example I often consider in this regard is dairy products. Dairy products naturally contain a sugar called lactose. Even if I am trying to eat less sugar, I am unlikely to find a milk product with “0 grams” of sugar for this reason. However, since yogurts often come with surprisingly high levels of added sugars, it would be helpful to know how much of the stated sugar content was added and not naturally occurring.
Now I may be alone here but if I’m going to consume a product with enough sugar to be considered a dessert, I would like to know. That way, rather than eating that yogurt cup for breakfast, I will have it for dessert. Or, in reality, I would prefer to have a sugar-free main course and save my daily sugar intake for a more indulgent dessert that I can select purposefully and enjoy with a satisfied, chocolatey grin.
That being said, I also recognize that information overload can occur easily and we may be experiencing some label fatigue when it comes to food products. Therefore, adding more information to food labels may indeed, further confuse consumers. This highlights the need for not only improved labelling, but also improved consumer education on how to interpret these labels.
Overall, I believe that leaving out the added sugar information is a missed health opportunity that would have supported consumers in making more informed choices. Instead, policy makers opted to put “total sugars” on the new labels which will include both added and naturally occurring sugar. Their stated objective was to get Canadians to eat less sugar by encouraging consumers to eat no more than 20% of their daily calories in sugar. For reference, this amounts to about 100 grams or 24 tsp of sugar.
For example, the label on a can of pop, which contains on average 10 tsp of sugar, would say that it contains 40% of your daily calories from sugar. To some, this may not sound like much – less than half of your daily intake! But for those who read the pesky fine print at the bottom of the nutrition facts table, they would see that 5% is considered a little and 15% is a lot. That means that 40% amounts to well, a lot.
The daily sugar allowance proposed by the Canadian government is in fact double what the World Health Organization suggests as a limit for sugar intake. At a meager 50 grams per day, their limit constitutes a couple of teaspoons of sugar more than what is found in a can of pop.
The food industry has approximately 5 years to bring in new labels with the required changes. As soon as 2022 we will start to see these changes rolling out. In my opinion, health experts should not count on these new labels to significantly impact sugar consumption.
Perhaps the only win that emerged for consumers from this food label revamp is that manufacturers will now have to list all of the sugar-based ingredients under the title “sugars”. This will help consumers to at least identify whether the product they are purchasing contains added sugar – even if we won’t know in exactly what quantity.
This will be helpful as sugar can appear in products under increasingly strange and unexpected names – everything from isomaltulose, potato syrup solids and sorghum. In one report, a total of 152 ways to say “sugar” on a food label were identified.
Is a sugar tax part of the solution?
Many health experts over the past couple of years have advocated for a tax on sugary drinks. The World Health Organization has recommended a tax of at least 20% on all sugar sweetened beverages including soda, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy drinks and sweetened teas and lemonades. They believe this would help to prevent chronic disease, tooth decay and excessive weight gain.
This additional income could then be used for various pro-health initiatives such as subsidies on fresh fruits and vegetables or health promotion campaigns. Based on Canadian research, a tax of 10-20 per cent on SSBs could result in an annual revenue of $1.8 billion for the Canadian government – that’s a lot of potential informational campaigns.
Many advocates for this tax bring up the example of taxing tobacco which helped to reduce both the purchasing and use of tobacco products. Some research has confirmed these assumptions. A study conducted by the University of Otago found that a 10 per cent tax on sugary drinks cut the purchase and consumption of sugary drinks by an average of 10 per cent in locations it has been introduced.
How is a 10 per cent reduction in consumption accomplished? In principal, a tax of this nature can achieve two things. First and foremost, it can serve as an economic disincentive to purchase these products while signalling to consumers that there are serious health concerns associated with these products. Secondly, this can serve as a prompt to manufacturers to reformulate the sugar levels in their products in anticipation of consumer backlash. Combined, manufacturers are adding less sugar to their products AND consumers are consuming less of these products. Although this may seem like a win-win proposition, the sugar tax continues to have its fair share of adversaries.
Taxing sugar-sweetened beverages, which serve as a quick and cheap (although unhealthy) source of calories, could raise the price of groceries. Referred to as “discriminatory taxation”, it is possible that this measure would unfairly impact low-income populations. Furthermore, areas that have historically experienced water contamination issues and now rely more heavily on packaged beverages could also be unfairly impacted.
Finally, there is perhaps a lesson to be learned from Denmark’s failed "fat tax". Introduced in October of 2011, a tax was applied to all food products containing saturated fats – including raw ingredients like butter and milk. As with many of these initiatives, the intentions were good but the repercussions unexpected. The measure increased companies’ administration costs and even encouraged locals to venture across the border, beyond the scope of the fat tax, to purchase their unhealthy snacks. As a result, the tax was scrapped after only one year and the government cancelled their plans to implement a tax on sugar.
With the upcoming Federal election here in Canada, health policy is always an important topic. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government have reported no intention of introducing a tax on sugary beverages in order to fight obesity. Rather, they intend to focus more so on promoting the new food guide released just this year, banning artificial trans fats and restricting marketing of junk foods to kids. In my opinion, this is the right move.
Recommended citation format: Gallant, M. "Too Sweet, or not too sweet? A sugar tax, is the question”. Food Focus Guelph (64), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, October 10th, 2019.