Sugar Tax

February 3, 2012 · Filed Under Food and Drink, Political, Science 

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.

Calories

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?

Alternatives?

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?

Comments

6 Responses to “Sugar Tax”

  1. Todd on February 4th, 2012 1:35

    Non-GMO,organic,sugar beets not grown with conventional petro-chemicals and stevia are great alternatives.

  2. Cynthia on February 8th, 2012 17:00

    Will all food be taxed? Here in the U.S. fake sweetening & maybe(?) natural sugar is in everything!! Everything. That’s the BIG problem..it’s not like treating yourself to a dessert or soda pop & really savoring it. So many people do not even notice that foods in the U.S have gotten sweeter & sweeter- to my taste disgustingly sweet. Even at stores that claim to be healthy the trend is cloyingly sweet. Think you’ll avoid this by eating good old vegetables? Think again! Corn on the cob is bred to be extra sweet..it’s in my opinion- inedible! It was already called sweet corn & was so good! When food is on sale & the customer thinks..”Oh good something to help out my budget”,..there’s a good chance they are buying corn syrup & I bet even the labels that proclaim “No corn syrup” are misleading. But it’s so hard to always make food from scratch w/ people having to work, work, work outside the home or just do other activities & even for a person w/ more time or eating a simple diet, raw materials are so high & not everyone can have a garden. Buying a good potato can be like buying caviar. It would be great for people to use a large portion of their income for food..but for many( most?) that’s not possible & a lot of organic food a rip-off! SO!! A BIG THANKS to anybody & everybody doing their part for a healthy future for our world !!!

  3. Patrick on February 8th, 2012 17:46

    That’s a really good point Cynthia!

    In a lot of other Internet forums people are asking the question, why don’t we stop subsidizing sweeteners before we start taxing them?

    Sweeteners are really everywhere, and the first step is to stop promoting them and provide some meaningful alternatives.

    Sometimes it’s really amazing how overwhelmingly sweet processed foods are, and how hard it can be to find alternatives!

  4. Cynthia on February 10th, 2012 4:50

    PS/ Patrick, Charlottesville, Va.-about 10 miles from us & where lots of the shopping is, was just voted by Forbes -”locavore capital of the world”! The world! We have a fantastic array of great foods & there’s lots of neat things going on, school gardens, etc., but real food is so darn expensive. Kids learn about good food but many can then only dream of eating it! The access is not there for all. I realize smaller enterprises need to be successful to survive & if fair to workers, etc, costs are high but it makes me sad to know good food is out of reach for many… Charlottesville also made another of Forbes lists- the millionaires list, we follow Beverly Hills. Yet many people just eke along..such disparity. There’s lots of work to do! Thanks again for your part!

  5. Patrick on February 10th, 2012 12:55

    Cynthia:

    Thanks for leaving these comments! Thank you too for doing your part! You’ve told me before you grow food and sell it at markets.

    It makes me really sad to hear things like this. It’s totally unacceptable a country like America can’t provide good food at a reasonable price for all the people who live there. What’s the solution? I really don’t know. One thing for sure, we don’t need more of the same old big business solutions.

    You read sometimes in the news here about how America is one of the few nations coping with obesity and hunger at the same time — both closely related problems!

    Honestly, if it weren’t for readers like you who leave comments like this, I wouldn’t have much of an idea of what’s going on in the US.

    I buy most of my food at one of two local organic markets. I walk or take the 5 minute bus ride.

    Each week I buy a backpack full of subsidized fruits and vegetables for about 15-20 euros (about US$25). About half of these are probably grown locally, and most of the rest come from Spain. A few sometimes come from farther away like Israel. Things like bananas come from even farther afield. This is most of what the two of us eat each week.

    I also usually buy a piece of (subsidized) cheese at the cheese stand run by the farmer, which costs 10 euros per Kg (about US$7 per lb). If I’m not trying to save money, I sometimes buy mushrooms from the stand selling locally grown, very deluxe mushrooms, which I don’t think are subsidized. I can easily spend 10 euros (US$15) or more there.

    Everything I buy at the markets are of outstanding quality.

    Local supermarkets are almost worthless, but we sometimes buy bread, rice, pasta, flour tortillas or other staples from there. For example, I hate supermarket bread, but it’s hard to find other reasonably priced bread of good quality.

    This is nearly all we eat, and for the two of us it’s about 40 euros or maybe US$55 per week. For most people in Amsterdam, this is affordable. Even if you only eat out of supermarkets and are not vegetarian, it’s unlikely many people spend more than twice this per week here. There isn’t much reasonably priced fast food, so if you eat out often it could cost much more.

    There are a few places to eat cheap local and organic foods out in Amsterdam. For example, a few places work with volunteers, to purchase local and organic foods (nearly always vegetarian and sometimes vegan) then prepare and sell it at cost. These are usually in squatted buildings, and are held on different days in different parts of the city. A 3 course evening meal usually costs about 5-8 euros (US$7-10), sometimes less if you ask for a discount. Usually local organic beer is sold at cost too. If this is too much money, there’s one such group that collects free food (usually discarded from restaurants) and offers free meals. Of course there are homeless shelters and soup kitchens too.

    Otherwise, we’re making progress politically in many important ways here with respect to local foods.

    Farming subsidies were recently capped, finally! Now it’s no longer possible for one person to run a mega factory farm and collect a half a million dollars in subsidies each year. Finally smaller farms, especially those in eastern Europe are getting more subsidies. There’s still a long way to go with farming subsidies, but it’s heading in the right direction.

    It’s looking like the courts might be ready to strike down the seed laws here. These pretty much mean even if you buy locally grown fruits and vegetables, the farmers are still required by law to buy their seeds from a company like Monsanto. It’s unlikely the seed laws will disappear overnight, but again it looks like we’re headed in the right direction.

    There’s still more work that needs to be done here to get more people to grow more of their own foods, and to connect better with local farmers. We also still need to do something about all the imported soy based animal feed. This is really causing a lot of environmental damage and harming people’s health, all over the world.

  6. Paul on May 12th, 2012 3:39

    “Anyone have other suggestions?”

    Eliminate all taxes, subsidies, and prohibitions.

    Emphasis on “all”.

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