Sugar tax own goal

We may now have the sugar tax, but of course what most of the soft drink suppliers have done is substitute other sweeteners for sugar (which we have consumed for about 500 years).

I’m unaware of any trials that suggest the alternative sweeteners are in fact either any better or even good for us at all but willy-nilly and without government attention they have been substituted, particularly by soft drink suppliers.

We are all gullible. I have to confess I recently bought a can of baked beans labelled ‘no added sugar’ and felt suitably pleased with myself. Only to discover on the label of ingredients when I finally got it home and read it, the secret ingredient, Steviol. So no added sugar – just added Steviol instead. I shall not be a repeat purchaser.

We now have a study suggesting that aspartame, sucralose, saccharine, neotame, advantame, and acesulfame potassium-k cause the bacteria found in the digestive system to become toxic when exposed to concentrations of only one mg./ml. of these sweeteners.

The sugar tax, is on this basis a blatant own goal.

I fear the answer to ‘Did our government not check or indeed do any research?’ is, obviously not.


  1. Andrew -

    What is the own goal here? Is it your contention that the health impacts of artificial sweeteners in soft drinks is worse than the impacts of sugar consumption? I’m not convinced at that the paper you linked supports that at all. (And they do not appear to have tested Steviol at all.)

    The scientists were exposing bioluminescent bacteria to different concentrations of different sweeteners – 1mg per ml is about twice the concentration in diet Coke, for example – and then interpreting changes in the bacterial bioluminescence – whether it was promoted or inhibited – as a reaction to “toxicity” of the sweetener. As far as I can see, they did not test for potentially “toxic” effects of sugar. I wonder, would bioluminescent bacteria react in any way when exposed to equivalent concentrations of sugar?

    We have been consuming refined sugar for centuries, but that does not make it any safer than other “natural” products that we have consumed for similar lengths of time, such as tobacco.

    But your overarching points are undoubtedly correct: that we need to watch out for food manufacturers slipping stuff into their products – particularly the ones marketed at “low fat” and “low sugar” – and that more research is needed.

  2. Peter May -

    To me it looks as though the impact of so called artificial sweeteners could be as problematic as sugar consumption – so why take the risk?
    Probably we ought to cut to the chase and just have a soft drinks tax…

  3. Christine Bergin -

    Have you tried checking food labels? I am allergic to some odd things and take a magnifying glass to go shopping. The sheer number of chemical names appearing on the labels is very confusing. I am not a chemist or analyst but find the additives that I cannot identify very worrying. I do not consider soy or its derivatives a suitable additive in bread or chocolate or many of the other things it appears in.

  4. Graham -

    I don’t know anything about allergens but we try to buy organic produce wherever possible. We grow a lot of our own vegetables organically. Until about 12 years ago we had our own small farm and reared poultry, cattle and pigs, not organically, but low input, no additives etc and ate only our own meat. If we can’t get organic we try to buy “local and in season” and as few processed foods as possible, although we do like cured meat, Jamon Iberico de Bellota especially, which we bring back from Spain. We even get Spanish oranges delivered in the spring from a low-input grower once we’ve worked our way through the 6Kg bag (for €4) we bring back. Talk about taste the difference!!

    Unfortunately, organic food is more expensive than processed or agri-intensive food and so is priced out of reach for many and impossible for those who have to use food banks. But even buying local doesn’t guarantee it hasn’t been produced by assaulting the soil with deep ploughing and heavy machinery, destroying the structure and eroding the topsoil, and then sprayed with toxins killing soil organisms and insects and ultimately leading to the loss of wildlife. In the long-run this kind of agriculture is unsustainable.

    Fishing is also a disaster area and one practice in particular doesn’t receive the attention is should. Imagine a farmer going into his field of cattle with a big net which allowed all the calves through but retained the mature cows and bulls, ie the breeding stock, and these were all killed. Well, that’s what fishermen do.

  5. Samuel Johnson -

    Here we come to a transatlantic divide. The EU values the precautionary principle: things, such as chemicals added to food, must be proven safe. The US adopts the reverse precept. It’s ok unless it’s proven harmful. Events like thalidomide have informed our preference.

    Ruskin’s aphorism is relevant, in the US in particular, in my experience:

    “There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who consider price only are this man’s lawful prey.”

    The very large scale of the US market provides opportunities for penny cheaper margins to be the basis of fortunes, and these fortunes are used to lobby the govt and procure “business friendly” legislation.

    The scale of the industrialisation of food production in the US is beyond the imagination or experience of most Europeans. We have no businesses I know of of the scale of say, Perdue, the chicken producer in the US.

    The product that encapsulates it all is, for me, the twinkie, the vending machine snack of choice of many Americans, a little “cream” filled “cake”.

    This book documents the science behind it, the putting into practice of Ruskin’s precept:

    There are many articles about the twinkie and some excerpts available; here’s a selection. (I couldn’t find one long, interesting, one I know I’ve read)

    As the first review on Amazon begins “This should be a wake-up call to those who wonder just WHAT is in our food”.

    But it isn’t a wake-up call in America because of the power of the producer lobby, something we have seen over and over again, with tobacco and cancer, oil and climate change, badly designed cars and exploding fuel tanks etc.

    Given a choice between safe food and cheaper food most of us are in a position to prefer safe food, so it’s the poor and the vulnerable who will suffer most if anything turns out to be unsafe.

    Consumer safety isn’t the only consideration when it comes to the fruits of industrialised food production. Sustainability and social impacts are just as important. Cheaper food that is not reliably available is false economy. Likewise for food that is produced at an insupportable environmental cost.

    A topical recent illustration is the dispute between the US and Canada over the latter’s protectionism in blocking the sale in Canada of US milk (produced by large industrial farms) in order to protect small family farms in Canada. America is inclined to be a bully when it comes to negotiating trade deals and the UK will be on the receiving end after Brexit, with a very much weaker hand without the solidarity of the rest of the EU.

    1. Peter May -

      Thanks for that – a very instructive analysis.

  6. Andrew (Andy) Crow -

    I can’t help feeling we have witnessed a lobbying battle between the sugar industry and the big pharmaceutical companies.

    The jury is still out on this, but I think WE lost.

    ‘Scientists’ will produce the answers required by big money interests. Everything is bad for us so it’s just a matter of finding which is the bad thing about any product and set the PR machine in progress to vilify it.

    I haven’t met an artificial sweetener I like yet. And I’m similarly unimpressed with all forms of industrial grease that claim to be wondrous substitutes for butter.

    I smoke tobacco and I drink alcohol and do not subscribe to the ludicrous folly that one day scientific medicine will allow us to live for ever.

    Only the congenitally stupid would want to.

  7. Peter May -

    Agree with the idea that medicine won’t allow us to live forever. But what it should aim for in my view is a good life before we pop our clogs. That is broadly not having to endure a decade or more of ill-health before the end comes. I think dietary reccomendations are probably a significant part of that.

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