Wow, the politics in the US are sure heating up and getting intertwined! Time was where you had a few powerful lobbies, who all looked after their own interests. Increasingly the US is starting to see powerful lobbies working together in very convoluted ways. Now a sugar tax?
World sugar consumption has tripled in the last 50 years!
Well first of all the world population has more than doubled in that time, so this accounts for most of it. Beyond this one of the things Michael Pollan pointed out in his book Omnivore’s Dilemma is during the time high fructose corn syrup was introduced into US soft drinks, America’s consumption of ordinary sugar stayed nearly constant. In other words, the HFCS was just more sugar added on top of existing consumption, and HFCS probably doesn’t satisfy an appetite for real sugar.
Considering an increase of all sweeteners together is misleading. If you only consider per capita consumption of ordinary sugar, you aren’t likely to see a meaningful increase over the last 50 years.
Not only is a modest amount of ordinary sugar a relatively safe and constructive part of a balanced diet, but it’s an appetite suppressant and trying to eliminate or reduce it will almost certainly lead to the overconsumption of other foods. It’s known for example that people who drink sugar-free soft drinks are statistically heavier than those who drink the sugared version, and this could be one reason.
Just Like Europe
It’s true a few countries in Europe have special taxes for soft drinks, but as far as I know this is not a tax on sugar. In particular drinks containing aspartame are not exempt from these taxes.
In Europe it’s more common to drink soft drinks in restaurants, who often depend on sales of drinks for a large part of their profits. It’s less common to drink soft drinks at home, and there are very few people who depend on soft drinks as part of their grocery shopping. Taxing soft drinks is more a way to tax eating out at a restaurant than anything else. Soft drinks are also usually an imported product, and by taxing them it encourages the consumption of local products like beers and wines.
In the US many people who consume large amounts of soft drinks live in the so-called food deserts of inner cities, with limited access to healthier alternatives. A sugar tax would only serve to raise the grocery bill of these people. A sugar tax in the US would be a disproportionate tax on the poor.
More Profit in Sugar Alternatives
The problem is while sugar is a commodity crop, and relatively speaking expensive to transport, process and store, as well as subject to swings in price depending on availability, the alternatives like HFCS and aspartame are not. These alternatives are patented, cheap to manufacture and represent huge profits for the companies that sell them and own the associated intellectual property rights.
The argument is sugar ‘and other sweeteners’ contain too many calories, making it ‘better’ to consume an artificial sweetener like aspartame. In fact there is not a single shred of credible evidence to suggest any link between the number of calories you consume and health. Calories are a very old unit of measure determined by literally burning food and seeing how much heat is given off. Your body does not metabolize food this way, and you can’t make any comparisons.
It’s true, there are low calorie diets which help people lose weight, but in nearly all cases the diets cannot be sustained and the weight returns after ending the diet. In fact most people who attempt such diets end up heavier in the end. This is all you can say about calories, and there’s nothing about this weight gain and loss that’s healthy.
Dangers of Non-Sugar Sweeteners
Alternative sweeteners like aspartame and HFCS have so many health concerns or suspected health concerns associated with them, that I’m not even going to get into it here. I’ve written some posts about these, and you can find lots of other things by searching the Internet.
In particular both of these are suspected of being behind the current world wide obesity epidemic, and are both suspected or known carcinogens.
Age Limit for Buying Soft Drinks?
Not to be left out here are of course the tobacco and alcohol lobbies.
To begin with the tobacco lobby does not want any legal competition with their products. This is the reason they were and are behind things like prohibition, worldwide drug wars and age limits that ensure young people grow up with a period of time where tobacco is the only legal drug available. It’s pretty logical they would like to see sugar less available, because craving it could also make using tobacco more attractive.
More importantly the tobacco industry wants to see the culture of enforced age limits, as a way of making their products seem safer. After all if we have age limits for everything from alcohol to tanning salons, and tobacco has a relatively low limit, it makes tobacco products seem safer and more normal to young people. In fact there are few more lethal products worldwide than tobacco.
Alcohol follows closely behind tobacco, because if you’re addicted to tobacco, you’re much more likely to consume larger amounts of alcohol.
What is it about elections in the US that brings together such powerful political lobbies in such intrusive ways?
How about some alternatives to a sugar tax:
Prohibition of soft drink and candy vending machines in schools, except for products containing 100% fruit, ordinary sugar, water or other completely natural ingredients.
Prohibition of sponsorship or promotion of processed foods, in a similar way promotion of tobacco products is prohibited in many places now.
Prohibition or tax on HFCS and aspartame.
A tax in the US on saturated fat, like in Denmark and Hungary.
End subsidies on corn, HFCS and ethanol.
A levy on brand name soft drinks, in a similar way brand name cigarettes are priced higher in the US.
Anyone have other suggestions?