If dietitians get their way, you will soon be paying more for your sugary drinks. Dietitians of Canada released a statement today calling for the taxation of sugar-sweetened beverages. This includes soft drinks, energy drinks and fruit drinks.
“Seeing higher shelf-prices on these drinks, which is what happens with an excise tax, will be a bigger deterrent for consumers than a sales tax added at the cash register,” explains Kate Comeau, dietitian and spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada. The proposed tax has the support of key health organizations, including the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Diabetes Association.
But why should we deter Canadians from drinking sugary drinks? The concerns relate to our health, as intake of sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to increased risk of weight gain and obesity, Type 2 diabetes, and tooth cavities.
In 2015 the World Health Organization released a guideline entitled “Sugar intake for adults and children.” WHO recommends that adults and children consume no more than five to ten per cent of their daily calories as added sugar — that’s about 5-7 teaspoons per day for children and 7-9 teaspoons per day for adults. Canadians currently exceed these recommendations, typically consuming about 15 per cent of calories from added sugars. Sugary drinks contain a lot of added sugar; more than our recommended daily intake in just one serving. There are 9 teaspoons of sugar in one 355 ml can of Coca Cola, 8 teaspoons in Canada Dry Ginger Ale, 6 teaspoons in a Tim Hortons large double double and over 13 grams of sugar in a 473 ml Monster energy drink.
Along with being high in added sugars, dietitians are concerned that sugary drinks do not contain other nutrients of value. These ‘empty calories’ may displace intake of other, important nutrients in our diet, potentially leading to deficiencies. This is particularly relevant in children, who require a nutrient-rich diet for growth and development.
The calories from sugar-sweetened beverages may also be added on top of our normal diet, leading to excess intake and overweight or obesity. It is important to make a distinction between added sugars, from table sugar, honey, maple syrup or corn syrup and naturally occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables. The new, proposed tax would not be added to fruit juices, because these are classed as being a source of nutrients and can count toward our 5-10 servings of fruits and vegetables as recommended in Canada’s Food Guide.
Critics of the idea of the tax say that sugary drinks are just one part of the problem, and that the rise in obesity, heart disease and diabetes are a result of declining activity, larger portion sizes and increased meat consumption in addition to with sugar. Dietitians of Canada suggest that for greatest impact, taxation measures should be part of an overall public health strategy to increase access to healthy foods.
Canada is not alone in taking a hard look at added sugars. In 2014 Mexico added a ten per cent tax to sugar-sweetened beverages, and early reports show that it is working to decrease intake. In the U.K. celebrity chef Jamie Oliver initiated a petition calling on the government to tax sugary drinks, and it received over 100,000 signatures in just two days. The U.K. government, however, shut down the idea, saying there would be no new taxes.
It remains to be seen what Canada’s Liberal government will do. During the election campaign Justin Trudeau promised to improve nutrition labeling, including clarifying the difference between added and naturally-occurring sugars. A tax on sugary drinks would be a good addition to Canada’s strategy to combat obesity.
Dr. Pamela Fergusson is a Registered Dietitian and registered Public Health Nutritionist based in Toronto, Ont.