Less sugars in food are necessary, they threaten public health

The numbers are now known: half of the adult Dutch population is overweight or obese. More than one million Dutch people have type 2 diabetes mellitus. Perhaps even more worrying is that type 2 diabetes – popularly known as ‘old-age sugar’ – has long ceased to be reserved for the elderly.

The cause of the current obesity epidemic is multifactorial. A high consumption of (ultra) processed food and soft drinks to which sugars have been added plays an important role. These sugars are not only a source of extra calories, there is increasing evidence that fruit sugar (fructose) has additional adverse health effects.

The solution to the obesity epidemic is also multifactorial. In 2018, a first step was taken through the National Prevention Agreement, which includes actions to make the living environment less ‘obesogenic’. Soon after the publication of this agreement, RIVM concluded that “the ambitions to tackle overweight do not seem feasible with the agreed package of actions and objectives”. On Tuesday 6 April, RIVM presented a proposal for additional measures to achieve these ambitions. The sugar tax is one of them.

What are the benefits of a sugar tax? Due to the price increase, people are inclined to buy less soft drinks and other products to which sugars have been added. The food industry is also being encouraged to reformulate their products, so that they contain less sugars. The Dutch Association of Soft Drinks, Waters, Juices (FWS) states that a sugar tax is not necessary to effect these changes. Based on her own research, she concludes that the target to reduce the number of calories in soft drinks, as laid down in the National Prevention Agreement, had already been achieved a year earlier. That’s nice, but not enough.

Soft drink

The approach in the United Kingdom is illustrative. In 2018, a two-stage sugar tax on soft drinks was introduced there. For soft drinks containing 5 to 8 grams of sugar per 100 ml, the converted tax is 21 euro cents per litre. For soft drinks that contain more than 8 grams of sugar per 100 ml, that is 28 euro cents per liter. Recent research has shown that the announcement and implementation of this tax has led to a sharper drop in sugar consumption from soft drinks compared to the Netherlands. In the UK, an average of 4.7 grams of sugar was consumed less per individual per day. And while that’s not even half a glass of Coke, it’s important to emphasize that this is an average. There are people who never drink soft drinks and there are people who consume a lot of soft drinks. The effect in the latter group is therefore much greater.

The recent story of the Tilburg alderman Esmah Lahlah, who spent a month trying to get by on social assistance benefits and lived on a bag of paprika chips for a few days, illustrates once again that healthy food is simply too expensive for some people. The financial benefits of the introduction of the sugar tax can benefit other health initiatives, such as making fruit and vegetables cheaper.

The FWS website states that 1.7 billion liters of soft drinks were sold in 2019 with an average of 20 kCal per 100 ml. That corresponds to 5 g of sugar per 100 ml. We can make a rough calculation of what a levy of 21 cents per liter, comparable to the UK, could yield. If we assume that half of the consumed volume contains more than 5 g of sugar per 100 ml, then that amounts to 180 million euros per year.

Fair is fair: people who are less educated, who are overweight or who consume a lot of soft drinks see less of a sugar tax. However, recent research at the VU shows that 57 percent of the Dutch are not against a sugar tax. The percentage of Dutch people who do not reject a sugar tax increases to almost 70 percent if the proceeds benefit health initiatives.

Economic damage

The food industry in general is not in favor of the sugar tax, because it can lead to loss of income. However, English research shows that this is an unfounded fear. The implementation of the sugar tax has not led to a decline in sales of soft drinks in the UK. However, to a decrease in the average amount of sugar per soft drink.

Finally, some political parties find a sugar tax patronizing. People should be able to decide for themselves what they want to eat. Due to a nitrogen crisis and the threat of economic damage, the same political parties did take what many consider patronizing measure in 2019 by lowering the speed limit. However, the economic damage caused by the current health crisis is also obvious.

The time has come for a sugar tax. It is one of the necessary steps to make the Netherlands healthier.

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