The ironic thing about the day the UK sugar tax was announced was that I drank some Coke.
Yep, you read that right. The ‘sugar coach’ and Founder of Happy Sugar Habits drank full sugar ice cold Coke on the 16th March 2016.
I was in Nandos with two male friends who ordered bottomless soft drink refills. I’d finished my drink of water and wasn’t going to get another.
I wanted to take the edge off the lingering onion flavour in my mouth (anyone else find that sometimes drives sweet cravings!?) and a curiosity got me. It was ice cold, free and in front of me.
I wonder if I still even like Coke and how sweet it tastes?
Here Terry*, can I have a sip of your drink please (Terry looks somewhat perplexed at my request but passes it over regardless).
*Terry has replaced my friends real name
Like when someone who hates green juice drinks a wheatgrass shot, my face screwed up.
‘That is disgusting, urgh. So sweet’. Two sips and I was done. Experiment complete. Desire to drink Coke again – pretty much zero.
Fizzy drinks are flipping sugary
I know I’m stating the obvious, but heck are fizzy drinks sugary. It seems even I need reminding of that from time to time.
They are disproportionately higher in sugar than many other foods.
A bottle of Coke or Sprite has 46g of sugar in comparison to evidently sugary treats like a bag of Maltesers at 19.7g or a 50g packet of Haribo at 31.7g.
Yet it’s surprising how many just don’t realise or consciously think about this very much. Soft drinks are often seen as a ‘drink’ rather than a treat – as my two friends making the most of the Nando’s refills demonstrated.
Whilst I could taste the sweetness in that Coke, the guys I was with didn’t bat an eyelid.
After years of weaning my sweet tooth down, I’m lucky enough for my body to tell me what’s horrendously sweet and what’s not.
However, many have the complete opposite. After years of consuming a large amount of sweetness in a wide range of foods, that Coke is simply a refreshing beverage on the side.
A standard habit and preference that’s developed over years of habitual repetition and well established social norms (having a Coke at most meals on holiday was what I grew accustomed to for a while).
Children and teenagers are these days growing up feeling that ‘water’ is boring and with sweet toothed preferences stronger than ever – it will shape their relationship with sugar and thus their future health significantly.
I’m not just talking the diabetes risk and the other obvious physical damage sugar does.
When you really get going with a pronounced sweet tooth, you also risk strong fructose cravings and then restriction attempts to control your desire for sweet which can lead to binge behaviour and other psychological issues which I see a lot of in my work as a coach.
So will the sugar tax change this and will it ultimately change behaviour?
Before I go on, let me just note that I am no expert in politics, economics or policy although I have taken a great interest in the debate around the sugar tax the few past days.
I am a coach, a writer and (excuse the clique) a changemaker. I help, inform and inspire people change around sugar, but really, I specialise in understanding what makes people tick and using that to enable long term habit changes and lifestyle shifts that make them happier with themselves.
I’m by no means the sugar police – I still eat and enjoy sugar and don’t advocate by any means a totalitarian quit sugar forever approach.
So what do I think of the sugar tax?
Even after reading all the counter debates and arguments, I have to say I still support it.
Firstly, I feel it’s a well needed signal and warning to manufacturers to take note and start reformulate their recipes and finding lower sugar versions of drinks (& other foods) that inevitably many people will still buy for years to come.
This is the government acknowledging sugar is a problem and saying, we’re going to start doing something about it.
The message of this tax may also incentivise new drinks companies coming market to make things lower sugar.
I fully appreciate, artificial sweeteners aren’t the answer and there is a concern that the sugar tax will lead to a higher consumption of these, but it could also foster lower product sugar innovation in the industry which long term is a good thing.
Already companies like Ugly Drinks are doing great work to give people less sweet options and I feel the sugar tax indirectly supports this work.
Will it change behaviour?
This is the big question, and really, until we’ve tried it, we just don’t know.
The sugar tax showed some positive signs in Mexico and other countries but it hasn’t been so successful in others. I don’t feel we’ll ever know if we don’t try.
Here are some scenarios to consider….
The occasional sugar drink indulger
For someone who drinks 2 portions of a soft drink a week, let’s say tonic water (which is included in the tax), the sugar tax increase at 20% could equate to roughly 10p a can (it’s not clear what price is going to be passed to the consumer yet).
That’s an estimated 20p a week, £10.40 a year.
For those who are moderately drinking soft drinks or are partial to a few G&Ts (myself included), it will dent their pocket slightly, but it’s unlikely to change behaviour with it being a relatively small amount.
It might seem unfair to this group of sweet drink moderators and of course this will feel harsher to those in the lower income brackets, but I’d ask them to consider the wider ramifications of this tax to our children and the potential future health of generations.
The soft drink regular
On the other hand, for someone that drinks say 2 cans of Coke or Sprite day, who really is at risk of consistently high sugar consumption over time and the damage it causes, the pocket money difference is £1.40 a week, £72.80 a year.
That’s a couple of copies of Grand Theft Auto is it not!?
Being so, this just might make a few frequent sweet drink guzzlers stop and think twice. Not saying all of them, but some. It will hit a threshold that makes some of them question the expenditure.
Do I really want to be spending this much on soft drinks.
I know I’ve had this habit for a while now, maybe I actually do something about it. Even just cut back a little or try out other options. What else could I spend that money on?…
The thing is, people need to want to change their behaviour, they can’t be forced.
There is a heck of a lot of information out there on reducing sugar if you want to find it.
Admittedly it’s a bit of a minefield and can be confusing, but we are in the free information age and there are great resources and support programmes for people to learn how to reduce sugar for them and their families.
If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, to successfully change, people need a motivation, a fire, a strong reason – a WHY – because serious sugar habit change takes effort and commitment.
And the extra cost of unsavoury sugary drinks habits if the tax does manage to pass it on?
It might just work as a motivation for some children or teenagers and stop these sweet habits entrenching themselves early on.
Many of those who probably most need the advice on my website don’t ever find it. Right now they don’t care and aren’t looking. They don’t want to be educated on sugar – they don’t feel it’s a problem for them…yet.
It’s getting people to start ‘searching’ and listening for lower sugar help and advice that will help those who need it the most.
When people argue for more education – I fear this education might just go in one ear and out the next. People actually have to want to listen, be open to take it in and take action upon it.
What the sugar tax might do, directly or indirectly, is provide some behavioural motivation for more people. It might give them that trigger that sparks behavioural change that may slowly start a seismic shift of sugary social norms.
Even this sugar tax media hype is an awareness that might just make the odd teenager pause for thought as they reach for that Monster drink and consider some alternatives.
Let’s appreciate the baby steps
Finally, the sugar tax is something. As in, I think it’s better than nothing.
Many are saying that this isn’t going to solve the obesity crisis and that only looking at soft drinks is narrow minded – all sugary foods should be considered.
That we need to be looking at education, putting more direct pressure on manufacturers and even the shops who are responsible for those crazy walls of colourful sugar.
That the way this tax is set up isn’t exactly the right way to do it.
You know what, I completely agree with many of these arguments. There’s lot’s more that can be done and the tax does seem to have it’s flaws in a number of places.
Buy hey, this may not work perfectly, but let’s at least try? It’s bold and it’s brave. I commend that.
It will have an admin and implementation cost associated yes. It may do something to inflation yes. But if there’s a chance this works and saves lives or starts a small snowball of change in the industry that will serve future generations, it’s surely worth the risk of trying?
One of the most debilitating mindset shifts of those that struggle with sugar is all or nothing thinking. If I’m not going to do this perfectly, I may as well do nothing. If I have one chocolate, I may as well eat them all. It’s the mindset that makes sugar moderation incredibly hard.
Let’s not allow similar all or nothing thinking take us away from a positive step in the right direction that has a chance of making an impact on the sugar situation (either directly or indirectly).
It will also serve as an experiment to properly measure and analyse the impact of such a levy, which if successful, may influence other countries to follow suit, or shape a different type of policy that works better and thus has ramifications later down the line.
So there’s my stake in the ground on the sugar tax. What are your thoughts? I welcome all lines of thought and views..
Lastly, I’m not here to demonise sugar. I’m here to help all of us now and our future generations rebalance to a sensible consumption of it and re-learn to moderate so physically or psychologically it doesn’t take the joy out of life.
I eat and enjoy it moderately. I might even treat myself to a Gin and Tonic later on as I write this, but thanks to the 16th March 2016, the potential sugar tax and Nando’s free refill deal, I’ll forever pass on the Coke thanks
P.S this interview with Dr Aseem Malhotra summarises lots of other points and arguments if you’re further interested