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The new sugar tax: Has the government gone far enough?

The new tax should be seen as a welcome first step and perhaps it will ignite an attitude change, writes Ciara Wright.

Ciara Wright Senior nutritionist

UNLESS YOU HAVE been living under a rock, you will have heard that sugar is bad for you, is the real reason we are all gaining weight and should be eviscerated from our diets post haste.

Now that the government have finally made it official, will this finally release us from sugar’s grasp?

Sugar sweetened beverages singled out

Sugar sweetened beverages have borne much of the blame for the obesity epidemic and for good reason. Contrary to current popular belief, sugar itself is not poisonous and our body uses glucose as an essential fuel source.

However, when we over-consume sugar (which we so commonly do), it is converted to fat and causes inflammation, weight gain and associated diseases we have heard so much about, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Sugar, particularly fructose found in sugar sweetened beverages, is also a major factor in the cause of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, a common and possibly life-threatening condition that may well be the next silent killer in Ireland.

Beverages are an easy source of excess sugar

Calories and sugar from sugar sweetened beverages are often taken together with a meal, that is the fizzy drink that goes with the burger and fries or the giant tub of movie popcorn and as such are almost always surplus calories and surplus sugar.

This means they are most likely to be directly converted to fat, as we simply cannot use that much energy in one sitting. Even when consumed alone, the quantities of sugar are usually very high; some energy drinks contain 15 teaspoons.

Sugar tax to the rescue?

Is the sugar tax going to solve all the problems? It might be argued that this is not the way to educate people on sugar and its pitfalls, rather this tax will simply will penalise people on lower incomes. Perhaps you could say that these beverages are a luxury item, a treat that is just for enjoyment and this is the nanny-state going too far.

Or have they not gone far enough? Milk-based products will be exempt from the new tax.  The rationale for this exemption is that these products contain important nutrients such as calcium and given the fat and protein content, they are more satiating thus less likely to be consumed in excess. However, many flavoured milk products such as chocolate milk have more sugar than the fizzy drinks that will be taxed which may be misleading to the consumer.

It is exactly the opinion that these drinks are healthy for us, and marketed as such, that needs to be changed.

Is there good sugar and bad sugar?

It is extremely difficult for the consumer to know how much added sugar is in their foods and drinks. Besides needing a chemistry degree to understand the ingredients, and a maths degree to work out sugar per portion, it is then a challenge to work out what is free sugars, added sugars or what is considered natural or is there even any difference?

The official party line (from the World Health Organisation) is that we should limit our free sugar intake to 6 teaspoons per day. Hands up who knows exactly what a free sugar is? Turns out this is not just the white stuff, the sugar that is added to say cakes, drinks, bars and ice-cream or goes on top of your cornflakes.

This is also sugar found in fruit and fruit juices, honey and syrups. The latter are often used in replacement of table sugar to make us think that food is healthier, more “natural”. The product will probably even market themselves as “no added sugar”.

Nutritional chefs also abound with recipes for “healthy treats” and desserts that are made without processed sugar, but frankly if there was no sugar in them at all, they wouldn’t taste like dessert. Recipes often use dates or dried fruit instead of table sugar but these are high in natural or free sugar also.  A typical date is about 10g and contains 6g of sugar, a teaspoon and a half.  Granted a date also has some minerals that sugar does not, and a small bit of fibre, so it is healthier, but definitely not free from sugar.

Ireland has a great track record

But at least we are trying something new; the sugar tax should be seen as a welcome first step and perhaps it will ignite an attitude change to what is acceptable for consumption, and what should only ever be considered a once-in-a-while treat. Remember also that as a nation we have to recall our triumphs.

We drastically reduced our environmental impact when the plastic bag levy was introduced and most of us now tote a re-usable bag for the weekly shop. Despite all the debate when the smoking ban was introduced, we surpassed all expectations and less young people than ever smoke in Ireland.

Obesity may be an enormous challenge and this may be just one simple step in changing our attitudes towards food and sugar, but it may well be the making of us.   

Ciara Wright PhD DipNT, Director of Glenville Nutrition, is currently delivering a low-sugar weight loss intervention in St James’ Hospital for patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. The pilot study aims to measure the effects of weight loss on liver health after a 12-week programme.  

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About the author:

Ciara Wright  / Senior nutritionist

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