Minister for Finance Michael Noonan is expected to announce in the coming budget, the introduction of a levy on soft drinks containing added sugar. The method of calculation of such a tax is currently unknown, although it is estimated the new “sugar tax” will add up to 10 cent to the price of a single serving of such high-sugar drinks, in line with measures in the UK.
It is believed that fruit juices and milk-based beverages will not be included in the measure, which may come into effect as late as 2018. The move is part of the Department of Health’s obesity strategy, known as Healthy Weight for Ireland, in recognition of the role added sugars play in our current obesity crisis. According to research from the Imperial College of London, published in the Lancet Medical Journal last April, Ireland will have the second highest levels of obese women in Europe (37%) by 2025, one percentage point behind the UK (38%). At present Irish men have the highest BMI levels of any European country.
Sweet Little Lies
Why has it taken so long to tackle the sugar issue?
For the last 50 years saturated fat has widely been regarded as one of the main causes of the obesity epidemic – this saw the advent and popularity of “low-fat” and “fat-free” dairy and food options.
This belief stems from a literature review published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in the sixties. In 1965 the Sugar Research Foundation, (now known as the Sugar Association) employed Harvard scientists to discredit the link between sugar and cardiovascular risk, using the evidence and information available at the time. The SRF’s funding of such review was never disclosed. Saturated fat was the scapegoat, vilified by the sugar lobby who could rely on this literature review for “scientific” support. This had grave implications on American and international health policy in the following fifty years, undoubtedly contributing to our current health crisis.
Sugar – The Modern Drug
Sugar is the most freely available addictive substances in the world. When food and beverages high in sugar are consumed, intense dopamine floods the brain, which is then programmed to want this response again, causing cravings. It is recognised that sugar and highly processed foods can have the same effect on the brain as drugs, their consumption affecting the nucleus accumbens, an area of the brain associated with addiction. (Source: Natural Rewards, Neuroplasticity and Non-Drug Addictions – Christopher M. Olsen PhD). Similarly sugar affects the opiod pathways in the brain in a manner akin to that of morphine and heroin. The use of functional MRI scanners has proven that the same regions of the brain are activated in response to cravings for drugs as junk food and sugar.
In parallel to other addictions, there is a “downregulation” of dopamine following each large intake of sugar as you progressively develop a tolerance, requiring larger and larger quantities to satisfy cravings.
Being aware – the Guidelines
According to the NHS added sugars should not make up more than 5% of your daily calorie intake (Source: NHS.co.uk). Similarly the American Heart Foundation advises that the maximum amount of sugar that should be consumed daily for men is 37.5g/150 calories or 9 teaspoons and for women 25g/110 calories or 6 teaspoons a day.
What does this mean in real life terms? A serving of Natural Valley’s ‘Honey and Oats’ granola bars contains 11 grams of sugar, more sugar than two McVities milk chocolate digestives. This just goes to show that even supposed ‘healthy’ snacks can actually be higher in sugar than the treats and biscuits you may be trying to avoid. A large glass (250ml) of Avonmore Whole Milk contains over 12g of sugar, and although this sugar is natural and unrefined it is worth noting – milk with your cereal and various cups of tea and coffee throughout the day may amount to a high overall sugar intake.
Ciara Landy | Food & Lifestyle