The UK “sugar tax” was created with the objective to improve public health. This Soft Drink Levy imposes a charge of 18p per litre on drinks containing 5-8g of sugar per 100ml, and 24p per litre for drinks with more than 8g per 100ml. It came into full effect on the 6th April 2018.
As a health site, you may think that I would support it. However from the moment it was announced I imagined it would result in manufacturers changing recipes to replace one harmful ingredient with another. That’s exactly what has happened.
Sugar Replaced With Artificial Sweeteners
Many brands have halved the sugar content and made up for this with artificial sweeteners. Re-formulated drinks include Lilt, Fanta orange, Ribena, Lucozade and Iron Brew. Ribena for some reason lists its product as artificial sweetener free but contains acesulfame-k and sucralose.
Coca-cola “original” is one of the few brands that hasn’t changed its recipe, it has 10.6g of sugar per 100ml. But Coke does have a wide variety of products and has notoriously faced huge backlashes whenever it changes the recipe. Since they introduced Coke Life as a “natural alternative” I always think of normal coke as Coke Death.
Artificial sweeteners are now endemic across all drinks, not just the diet drinks. The brand leader of tonic water in the UK has been adding aspartame to its non-diet drink for a while now.
Encouraging the “Healthy Choice”
Ministers are declaring this a success as their apparent aim was to reduce the sugar rather than make revenue. They claim that this is “encouraging a healthy diet” by having people consume more artificial sweeteners and less sugar. Don’t get me wrong, refined sugar is detrimental to health, but there is no conclusive evidence that artificial sweeteners are any better.
Sugar has been consumed for thousands of years and the effects are well understood. Artificial sweeteners are a very new addition to the human diet. They have always been controversial with some banned in the past like cyclamate and saccharin due to links to cancer and other illnesses.
The tax was created assuming people would have less sugar and this is better for health. Rather than looking at the complete and long-term picture. Typical government short-term isolated thinking in the past has made very damaging decisions. Like promoting diesel vehicles as they have lower emissions.
However diesel emissions have more particulates and these are significantly worse for health. Issues with diesel and air quality were known before the government made the push towards diesel. The illegal and toxic air quality in London is mainly from nitrogen dioxide emitted from diesel vehicles.
London pollution has been exasperated by the push for diesel taxis and this is having a detrimental effect on health. Sorry for the digression but did want to point out the common flaws in isolated government short-term thinking and the unintended consequences.
Are Artificial Sweeteners Healthier Than Sugar?
The most used artificial sweetener is aspartame and this has been subject to many controversies over the years. Supporters say it has been studied extensively and it’s safe to consume in moderate amounts. The same could be said for sugar, so that does question the drive to convert people from sugar to artificial sweeteners.
Opponents of aspartame/artificial sweeteners claim they ruin the taste, cause obesity due to a very sweet taste with no calories causing people to eat more and are linked to cancers. Many people do experience headaches, migraines and other side effects from artificial sweeteners.
The artificial sweeteners that manufacturers are now replacing sugar with are the cheapest to produce but also have the longest list of side effects and concerns. These are all approved and licensed for use but that doesn’t mean they are healthy.
NHS advice is always several decades behind, they only recently stopped promoting trans-fat laden margarine and refined oil spreads as a healthy choice. The NHS smart swap programme is supported by manufacturers of junk food that are selling smaller portions of the junk food to meet the “100 calories healthy snack” guidelines or food that has had sugar replaced with artificial sweeteners.
I’ve yet to see any conclusive evidence that swapping sugar for artificial sweeteners is better for overall health. One study shows that rats fed aspartame had a lower body mass, but more gut bacteria and increased blood sugar. Again highlighting the issue of just concentrating on one factor rather than the overall picture.
Experts Beleive Aspartame Causes Neurological Effects
A new report published in Jul 2019 calls for a ban on aspartame while further tests are carried out on its safety.
Professor Erik Millstone from the University of Sussex claims that between 2-10% of people suffer noticeable neurological effects including dizziness, blurred vision, headaches and in some extream cases seizures.
‘I have had about 250 people come to me saying they think aspartame caused a problem,’ he said.
‘I would describe it as strong circumstantial evidence that they have had neurological symptoms and have eventually come to the conclusion aspartame was responsible.’
Since 1974 scientists have been warning about aspartame and it’s potential to cause cancer and brain damage. A study in 2010 linked found that women that drank diet sodas were more likely to give birth prematurely.
Fizzy Water is Detrimental to Tooth Health
Just sparkling water alone can be detrimental to teeth as it is more acidic than regular water. Constantly exposing teeth to just fizzy water causes tooth erosion. While it’s better than sugary drinks it’s not ideal. Still water is the safest drink to sip throughout the day as it contains a PH value of 7.
Dentists are generally supportive of the sugar tax, however dentists only care about teeth and not general health. They are right to be worried as tooth decay is the number 1 reason for child hospital admissions in the UK.
These issues can’t be solved overnight by replacing sugar with sweeteners. Long-term effective solutions could involve education and gradually weening people off these super sweet drinks. Due to the nature of governments no one thinks long term.
Use a straw to avoid tooth damage from fizzy drinks.
The only conclusion I can draw from this is more information and research is needed. To actually show if the UK soft drink tax will benefit public health overall or just create new issues. This isn’t the time to sit back and congratulate but rather the time to double down on the details and push for more research.
The soft drink levy/sugar tax and the increased use of artificial sweeteners won’t personally affect me. I didn’t consume these soft drinks before and still won’t now. I’m highly sceptical if overall health will actually improve.
Please let me know what you think of this in the comments below or on social media @nestandglow / @bastiandurward.
Update March 2020
The UK government has concluded that the sugar tax is a success as the amount of sugary drinks consumed has reduced. However the devil is in the detail as the document shows the downward trend for sugary drinks has more or less kept in line following the sugar tax. Not nearly enough evidence to say it’s a success let alone the increased consumption in artificial sweeteners is improving public health.