Beware Sugar Taxes And The Law Of Unintended Consequences

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Sugar is bad for our health. Sugar taxes may be worse. Image courtesy:

Health campaigners lobbying for the introduction of a tax on sugary foods and drinks would do well to consider the lessons of the Volkswagen emissions scandal.

Well meaning measures to protect the planet from climate change resulted in European Union (EU) governments encouraging a major switch from petrol to diesel vehicles across the continent over the last two decades. The result of this switch was to fuel the growth of an air pollution health hazard that reportedly causes thousands of premature deaths each year and to incentivise a major company to allegedly break the law.

The risk is that equally well meaning measures to protect public health from the undoubted harms of sugar will have similarly damaging unintended consequences that will only become apparent in the future. And there is research evidence suggesting that there is good reason to be concerned.

The issue of sugar is in the news in the UK at the moment thanks to a political row brewing over a review into how best to reduce the nation’s intake of this sweet foodstuff. Sarah Wollaston, the chair of the UK parliament’s House of Commons Health Select Committee, has accused Jeremy Hunt, Health Secretary for England, of suppressing a report which is believed to provide evidence that would favour the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks. This report, compiled by Public Health England (PHE), an executive agency of the English Department of Health, has yet to see the light of day despite being due for publication back in July; Hunt now says the report will be published later this year. Wollaston has also accused PHE of obstructing her committee’s inquiry into child obesity by refusing to publish the report and she has demanded that PHE chief Duncan Selbie appears before the committee.

There is no doubt about the harm caused to health by our sugar-laden western diet with levels of diabetes, obesity and other related illnesses all on the rise. The issue is what to do about it.

A sugar tax would undoubtedly reduce sugar consumption. It would also incentivise manufacturers to substitute artificial sweeteners for sugar in food and drink. And encourage the public to switch from buying sugary products to buying the un-taxed cheaper artificially sweetened alternatives.

Some of the potential health consequences of such a switch to artificial sweeteners can be foreseen. Research published last year in the respected leading academic journal Nature, and reported in this blog, shows that artificially sweetened foods and drinks can also cause illness, diabetes and obesity – just like sugar.

Dangers of artificial sweeteners

Experiments on mice and humans have shown that artificial sweeteners change the make-up and behaviour of bacteria in the gut resulting in raised blood sugar levels. This is a key factor in the development of type 2 diabetes and metabolic illness linked to obesity; also, the imbalance in gut bacteria – known as dysbiosis – is related to many intestinal disorders.

Scientists studied the effects of three widely used artificial sweeteners: saccharin, sucralose and aspartame. They added supplements containing these artificial sweeteners to the diets of mice. The results were clear: the research team found that each of the three sweeteners altered the animals’ metabolism, raising blood glucose to significantly higher levels than those of sugar-consuming mice.

The researchers believed this was due to changes in the gut microbial make-up of the mice that they had observed. To check whether it was indeed these changes in gut bacteria that were actually responsible for the metabolic changes that they had seen in the mice, they gave the mice antibiotics to deplete the gut bacteria and they found that this treatment eliminated the glucose intolerance. Next they fed healthy mice with food contaminated with faeces containing the altered gut bacteria mixture from glucose intolerant mice – and sure, enough, the healthy mice developed glucose intolerance.

The next big scandal could be in the food industry

Now, too much sugar in the diet is bad for our health and we should be taking steps to reduce it by changing our eating behaviour. Of course, taxes change behaviour and health campaigners would argue that this is exactly what they are seeking to do with their proposals for a sugar tax. But it will fuel the market for cheap artificially sweetened food and drink rather than encourage people to change to a genuinely healthier diet and eat more fruit and vegetables.

Taxing the sugar content may sound like a good idea. But think about the implications. We will need a food testing regime to determine how much sugar is in any given product. We will be incentivising food manufacturers to change the nature of their products to reduce sugar content without affecting flavour or cost. And, we will be encouraging the public to switch from buying one class of product to another. Sound familiar?

The risk is that we may find a major food manufacturer playing the role of Volkswagen in some future scandal over the damaging health effects of artificial sweeteners. A scandal made worse by government actions that inadvertently encourage people to switch over to foods full of aspartame and the like.

Sometimes it may be better for governments to resist the temptation to interfere. The old adage has it that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” and the diesel emission scandal is a classic example of the law of unintended consequences.

Don’t let’s make the same mistake with our food.

See also

Diet Foods Make You Fat: Research Shows Artificial Sweeteners Can Trigger Illness, Diabetes And Obesity – here.


Artificial sweeteners induce glucose intolerance by altering the gut microbiota by Jotham Suez, Tal Korem, David Zeevi, Gili Zilberman-Schapira, Christoph A. Thaiss, Ori Maza, David Israeli, Niv Zmora, Shlomit Gilad, Adina Weinberger, Yael Kuperman, Alon Harmelin, Ilana Kolodkin-Gal, Hagit Shapiro, Zamir Halpern, Eran Segal & Eran Elinav published in Nature 18 September 2014 (Vol. 513, No. 7518) doi:10.1038/nature13793

Read the abstract and get the paper from here.

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One Response to “Beware Sugar Taxes And The Law Of Unintended Consequences”
  1. wolsten says:

    I wonder how long it will be before the mainstream nutrition industry starts taking the research on artificial sweeteners seriously along with that on fat and cholesterol?


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