UK Sugar Tax Causes A Huge Increase in Artificial Sweeteners

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.

Coke Life and Coke Death

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.

Apple Cider Lemonade Vegan

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.

Elderflower Lemon Water

Final Word

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.

14 thoughts on “UK Sugar Tax Causes A Huge Increase in Artificial Sweeteners”

  1. It sucks big time for me as someone with a serious chronic bowel disease. All of these artificial sweeteners are dreadful and make an already runny bot much much worse. Bowel cramps aplenty. TAX = CASH. SIMPLES.

    1. I sympathise as I too think Aspartame causes digestive issues for me as well. Its a chemical and it shouldnt be in any drinks.

  2. I have always hated the taste of all sweeteners like aspartame and Stevia. Why don’t manufacturers just remove some of the sugar and not replace it at all, with anything? I personally wouldn’t mind my drinks tasting a little sharper.

  3. There is proven links with health issues and cancer from these substances and i was shocked in the cinema last week to find out they stopped selling sugar drinks in place of a cup of cancer. I was furious, but population control with cancer and taxes/money are all the criminal organization we call a government are interested in.

    1. I could not have said that better myself. Like your reading my mind!
      I complained to the cinema and told them that they would rather induce cancer on me and my son that provide a natural product thats safe.

      The woman was baffled and clueless to the dangers.

      1. As aggrieved that you may have felt, do you really think the staff member could do anything about the food and drinks that are purchased by the cinema owners ?

  4. I’m American and when I first visited London earlier this year I couldn’t figure out why the sodas tasted atrocious. I’m back here currently and as I drunk a cup I immediately understood what it was: aspertame and sucralose. Looked at the label, bam. Gross. Every soda here is diet soda. I rarely drink it myself but occasionally I’ll indulge, so obesity was never an issue. Crazy how much freedom this country doesn’t have. Cooking oils, simple carbohydrates, and salt taxes coming soon!

  5. Anyone who cares about their health will speak out against the atrosity of chemical sweetners. We live in an age of revolution and we must fight the multinational corporations whose bottom line is cold hard cash and let the people and environment die.
    Thanks for writing about this Bastien, if we eliminate ALL prepackaged goods out health will thrive. Your recipes are wonderful examples.
    Love the “dead coke” reference, btw.

  6. Where as before the sugar tax I could enjoy an occasional 7up, it being a drink without colours and other things that affect me, I no longer drink it because I do not know the long term affect on health. I try very hard to avoid these sweeteners.
    I would like to just have the option to have only sugar in my drink. Reduce the sugar yes. I drink water with a slice of lemon in, no sweeteners at all. I make cakes with reduced sugar and do not put sugar in savoury foods, and drink herb teas without sugar. I had better enjoy jam before the sugar is all taken out of that too.

  7. All the artificial sweeteners mentioned ruin the taste of fizzy soft drinks. I am prepared to pay more for sodas sweetened with sucrose, but I am not given a choice, unless I stick to Coke, which I only drink with rum or whiskey. Because all the drinks I have come to acquire a taste for have been ruined, I will never buy another one. I shouldn’t anyway, because I am a diabetic, but I do very occasionally treat myself to a soda. Not any more, or at least not until manufacturers replace Aspartame, Sucralose etc with the sugar alcohols, like maltose and sorbitol, which taste exactly like sugar, but don’t damage your health.

  8. I absolutely hate, and have always hated sweeteners. I rarely have soft drink, but if I have one I want the sugar and not some fake stuff produced in a factory. It is known that some sweeteners permanently lock themselves into the sweet receptors in our brain and cause people to want sweeter things. Sugar tax is definitely not the solution and manufacturers forcing sweeteners down people is not on. Consumers should have a choice and Sweeteners should be clearly marked on the label. Today I have had to throw away a large supermarket juice and a normal 7up as they both had sweeteners to my absolute horror at the first sip. I am constantly throwing drinks away because they are not clearly marked as having sweeteners. I can taste it immediately and it is absolutely disgusting. Gives a tummy ache. I do not want to be forced to be consuming a product that we are most likely going to be told in 20 years causes cancer, as does most processed foods… this is just another processed food… and one thing we do know is that the more you process food the more detrimental it is to health!! Process margarine too far and it turns to blue plastic… and yet governments tried to convince people it was better than butter….. !!! Give me the SUGAR!!!! Just put less of it in… not replace it with something which actually makes it sweeter in taste… and a disgusting sweet taste at that!

  9. I live in Denmark and we have many UK products imported, I have had UK Dr Pepper and Swedish Dr Pepper and American Dr Pepper and Polish Dr Pepper because Denmark don’t have its own version of Dr Pepper so its imported here, the worst I have had was the UK version because I can’t stand the sweeteners mixed with sugar in the UK version. my favorite is the American version I like it very sweet and Swedish and Polish Dr Pepper I find decent. I used to drink a lot of Irn-Bru when stores had it imported but now it seems like Irn-Bru has lost its flavor/taste and then I read on the back of a can it has sweeteners in it. The UK government has really ruined British soda for me. I’d rather look for American imported soda here in Denmark because its very unlikey it contains sweeteners. I do not care so much about health but I can’t stand the taste of sweeteners so when I want a soda I’d look for American or other country soda here in Denmark that don’t contains sweeteners but I have notice the trend of sweeteners is also very common here in Denmark so the best way for me to avoid sweeteners is to look for imported soda and candy from America and other countries that make it without sweeteners. I used to like British soda in the past I liked Ben Shaws Cream Soda and Irn-Bru etc but now I’m not a big fan because of the sweeteners in them.

  10. Artificial sweeteners give me diarrhea and worse, how can that be healthy?
    Just after the sugar tax was introduced, almost every large supermarket changed their formulation for “fruit juice drinks” as well, replacing some of the sugar with artificial sweeteners. Only, some of them did not announce the recipe change other than in the ingredients list. This is dangerous, especially for people who react badly to the altered ingredients. After I emailed them, suddenly things like “new recipe” and “less sugar” appeared on the packaging.
    Before the sugar tax, I was watering my fruit juice drink down myself, already. I prefer to make my own choice and be an educated consumer. Now, I cannot do that any more, because I cannot get any fruit juice drinks without sweeteners as easily any more.
    Mind you, they cannot touch “fruit juice”, yet, as that does not fall under the sugar tax and cannot be altered with additional ingredients. But have you ever found a Cranberry juice that was not a “juice drink”? And I am drinking this for medical reasons, because my GP suggested to have it in small doses.
    Why do people not get a choice in what they consume? We need to learn about a healthy diet instead of being infantilised!

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