Obesity experts favour taxing sugar-filled food
A Vancouver nutritionist believes “it would be worth a shot” to place a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages and on processed foods that contain added sugars.
“I think it would be an interesting technique to try out, for sure,” Rich Ralph, a registered holistic allergist and nutritionist, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “I think something needs to be done, whether that be adding an additional tax to those foods or taking away the subsidies for growing the crops that are ingredients in those foods. Those foods are just so cheap, typically because of government subsidies. So it makes it hard for people that are trying to eat healthy.”
Researchers at the University of California recently made a strong case for the idea in an article for the February 2 issue of Nature, a weekly international journal of science and medicine.
Robert Lustig from the department of pediatrics and the Center for Obesity, Assessment, Study and Treatment at the University of California in San Francisco joined UC colleagues Laura Schmidt and Claire Brindis in penning the hard-hitting analysis, titled “The Toxic Truth About Sugar”. A major argument presented by the three is that added sugar—defined as “any sweetener containing the molecule fructose that is added to food in processing”—should be taxed due to its harmful effects.
Alarmingly, the three note that in the past 50 years, sugar consumption has tripled worldwide. If international bodies are truly concerned about public health, they must “consider limiting fructose” as well as its main “delivery vehicles”, which are the added sugars known as high-fructose corn syrup and sucrose, according to the commentary.
And the trio go even further, noting that sugar’s pervasiveness, toxicity, potential for abuse, and negative impact on society place it in the same category as alcohol and make it worthy of “some form of societal intervention”.
In addition to taxation, other measures could include limiting sales during school hours and placing age limits on its purchase, according to the article.
Ralph said he works with his clients to get them eating whole foods. In other words, he aims to get them off processed foods.
“It’s important to remember, too, our bodies need sugar,” he explained. “It’s the refined sugar that we really need to get away from.”
Gwen Chapman, a professor in UBC’s faculty of land and food systems, told the Straight: “I’ll probably do the cop-out that we probably need more research to find out what the impact [of a tax] would be.”
The theory is that in order to change what people are eating, we need to “make the healthy choices the easy choices”, Chapman said.
“But no one thing is going to solve the problem, and we know that it is going to take multiple strategies on multiple levels to make that difference,” Chapman added.
B.C. Green Party leader Jane Sterk won’t be pushing the tax.
“Quite frankly, it would be the least important of the things that I think we need to be dealing with,” Sterk told the Straight by phone. “I think that we ought to be regulating marijuana, in a much more healthy way than we are currently, before we tackle sugar.”
B.C. NDP health critic Mike Farnworth concurred: “I’m certainly not advocating it.”
He suggested that greater awareness and education are important in helping people make wiser choices and live healthier lives. “I think the sedentary lifestyle is a real problem,” Farnworth told the Straight.
Neither Health Minister Mike De Jong nor Finance Minister Kevin Falcon would grant an interview. Provincial nutritionist Lisa Forster-Coull told the Straight her office’s main focus, based on “the strongest evidence”, is on the health impacts of “sugary drinks”.
“There is a very strong case for limiting the consumption of sugary drinks by children and youth,” Forster-Coull said by phone. “They provide little or no nutrition. They replace healthier choices and they really don’t fill you up.”
Another bugbear for Ralph is the ethical void in the labelling of processed foods.
“There are loopholes all the time, where chemicals and things can make it into foods because they don’t have to be labelled because, technically speaking, they are not foods and they don’t have to be on the ingredient list,” Ralph said. “And then there’s the argument about companies [that] will change the name of foods to try and hide things. Sugar is one example. There are so many different names for sugar. If it’s on the ingredient list with five different names, it just means that they’ve added sugar five times.”