A sugar tax should be applied not only to sugary beverages but also to the sweeteners and sugars that show up in most heavily processed foods.
Excessive sugar consumption is one of the main factors increasing health inequalities. Nutritionally, people do not need any sugar in their diet. The World Health Organization recommends that the amount of sugar we consume be 5 percent of total daily calories, which is about 25 g (6 teaspoons). This is equivalent to less than a single serving (250 mL) a day of commonly consumed sugary drinks. Currently, the sugar Canadians consume accounts for 21 percent of their daily calories. In 2015, the average Canadian youth consumed 578 mL (approximately 13 teaspoons) of sugar-sweetened drinks each day.
Governments can play a role in changing food behaviours and supporting individuals in making healthier dietary choices. The Canadian government has finally taken some steps toward developing a national food policy. Its campaign sets out a long-term vision for health, environmental, social and economic goals related to food, while identifying actions we can all make in the short term. Among these goals is increasing access to affordable food, in order to improve our health and food safety.
When developing its policy on curbing excessive sugar consumption, the government should look at similar policies in other countries, such as a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (Norway, Finland, Hungary, Mexico, Philippines and some US cities, with Ireland, the UK and Estonia to follow in 2018). France imposed a tax on sweet drinks in 2012 and made it illegal to sell unlimited amounts of drinks with sugars. Hungary’s tax has resulted in 19 percent of people reducing their intake of sugar-sweetened soft drinks since 2011. Soda consumption in Mexico declined 6 percent in 2014 after the introduction of the tax. A sugar tax has been proposed in the Northwest Territories, which could have a tremendous impact on the health of the Indigenous population. A 20 percent tax on companies that make sugary drinks could help save more than 13,000 lives over the next 25 years, according to a 2017 University of Waterloo study. It would also save $11.5 billion on health care spending and bring in $43.6 billion in government revenue.
Implementation of a sugar tax would be a great step, but it is not nearly enough if it applies only to sugary beverages. The tax should be applied to all forms of heavily processed sweeteners and to sugar itself, which has at least 60 different names. Common names that are listed on food labels include evaporated cane juice, agave nectar, sucrose, high-fructose corn syrup, honey, barley malt, maltodextrin and rice syrup. Considering all the names there are for sugar, it is not surprising that it shows up in almost every kind of packaged food!
Resistance to a sugar tax from food manufacturers is expected. The Canadian government should offer incentives to manufacturers that move toward products with less sugar. Government will have to regulate and control marketing to prevent food manufacturers from substituting different names in advertisement and packaging: for example, using the terms “evaporated cane juice” or “corn syrup” to avoid using the word “sugar.” It should introduce regulations to prevent misleading practices like stating there is “no added sugar” on a package of juice, when there is, for instance, 26 g (6 teaspoons) of sugar per serving listed on the product’s nutrition label.
Promoting foods and beverages that are high in sugar by emphasizing other health benefits should also be regulated. As of 1980, Quebec, along with Norway, Sweden, Greece and the UK, prohibited targeting children in advertising for products such as fast foods and certain desserts. As a result, overweight and obesity rates among children in Quebec are significantly lower than the national level. Addictive like a drug, sugar puts low-income populations at risk of being exposed to aggressive advertising of cheap sugary foods and beverages. Minorities are influenced to make choices that are unhealthier than the choices made by other demographic groups. Sometimes, when low-income people rely on food banks, which frequently offer processed, packaged goods, they do not have a choice.
Sugar and sweetener taxes will not mitigate sugar’s health impact by themselves; along with the tax there has to be a vigorous public education campaign. Only if they are informed will consumers support a ban on the sale of high-sugar foods in schools. Many parents still see high-sugar, processed snack foods as a reward for their children and for themselves. Public awareness campaigns should teach children to get excited about healthy foods. In 2017, Canada is still the only G8 country that does not have a nationally funded school meal program. Nutrition courses should be included in curriculums, educating children from an early age about types of sugar and its effect on the body. Currently, courses on food, health and nutrition are offered as electives, and only in some high schools. Funding for nutritionists or dietitians to conduct school workshops on healthy meals should be a national priority. Educational staff should conduct surveys among students on food consumption and dietary assignments to track their knowledge retention. All these actions would require a formal dialogue among the federal and provincial governments and the school boards. In addition, there should be grants for projects that bring farmers to schools to educate children and that connect people with organic farms. Children need to learn how to read the labels from an early age, so they grow up to be informed and health-conscious citizens.
This year the Canadian government implemented changes to nutrition labels to highlight the sugar in foods by adding a daily percentage value for the total sugars and grouping sugar-based ingredients in brackets after the name “sugars.” This is not sufficient to reduce the confusion about information on food labels. The total grams of sugar listed in the nutrition facts does not tell us whether the sugar comes from added or natural sources. The quantity of added sugars in grams plus the daily percentage value should be included on the label, and the word “sugar” should be in bold and moved up to the first line, to highlight its importance. Without these changes in the nutritional label policy, people have to laboriously read through the (usually) long list of ingredients to determine where the sugar comes from.
The government and the food industry can play a critical role in devaluing high-sugar, processed foods by ensuring that healthy foods are available and promoting them. Financial assistance for farming should focus more on subsidizing the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables for Canadians who cannot afford them. As well, a community or school garden program would increase the availability of fresh fruits and vegetables and also awareness of their health benefits.
More studies and public education are needed to produce evidence on the long-term effects of sugar on the body. Through its food policy, the government should make scientific results, progress and outcomes available to the public in simple, concise language. Everyone has the right to a health-informed lifestyle. And from the point of view of health prevention, healthy living pays off for society as a whole.
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