Taxing Sugar – including honey – to keep us safe?

A recent article in February 2nd comment section of Nature magazine  has created quite a stir, and indeed set my mind to pondering. The authors point out that sugar, which includes honey, is toxic, if you eat a lot of it on a daily basis.  This can, of course, be said, of many foods. The article proposes that products with added sugar should be taxed due to the dangerous nature of massive sugar consumption.

 Nature magazine February 2012, comment title:  "Toxic Truth About Sugar" The “controlling them like alcohol” line was enough to send shivers down the back of this beekeeper who sells  raw honey from naturally-treated hives for a living.   It probably gives the willies to other beekeepers as well.

First lets all acknowledge is that however good honey is and however wonderful it is for you (in my opinion), it is a combination of sugars, with fructose and glucose weighing in at the top, followed by sucrose and then way smaller amounts of other sugars.  So honey would definitely come under a “sugar tax”.

Beekeepers try to keep the price of honey reasonable.  However we do need to account for costs that may not seem evident to the consumer at first glance. All we really don’t need is a new tax to whomp onto our sales price.

However, the article does make compelling points about over-consumption, health issues, personal and social costs.  The authors, all of whom are from the University of California, San Francisco, do have distinguished credentials : Dr. Lustig is at the Department of Pediatrics and the Center for Obesity Assessment, Study and Treatment; Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Brindis are at the Clinical and Translational Science Institute and the Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies.

Their primary concern is about the huge amounts of sugar consumed daily in the US and worldwide, as well as the resultant medical and social costs that results from the over-consumption of sugar.  They “…believe that attention should be turned to ‘added sugar’, defined as any sweetener containing the molecule fructose added to food in processing.”

That tends to point at high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but remember sugar has fructose as well.

 

Dr. Schmidt responded to my emailed query by writing:  “Small amounts of sugar in any form are fine from the perspective of metabolic syndrome, and consuming with high fiber foods helps as well.”
Dr. Lustig did point out in an email : “Honey, gram for gram, calorie for calorie, has equal amounts of fructose as does sugar. But because honey is more expensive and has its own individual flavor, people tend to use less of it. Which is a good thing.”

 

Dr. Brindis added, via email, that “A key element in all of this is the huge reliance on over-processed foods and that we are now eating close to 28 teaspoons of sugar a day (as there is so much sugar in 80% of foods), representing 3 times as much consumption as we did 30 years ago (we should be at  about 9 teaspoons).  An element here is moderation—your customers are probably not going to go overboard in terms of honey consumption, even if they have honey in their diet. The question is what else and other sources of sugar are they using….”

Why Too Much Sugar Can Be Bad

The authors do cite a rather frightening array of issues linked to the over consumption of sugar. A few of these are:

  • “…heart disease, cancer and diabetes [now] pose a greater health burden worldwide than do infections diseases”…
  • Scientific evidence shows that fructose can “…trigger processes that lead to liver toxicity and a host of other chronic diseases”  {my aside, remember honey contains natural fructose}
  • Studies have shown sugar is addicting: it messes with hormones so that our bodies think we are still hungry when we are full and increases the desire to eat more sugar (not simply eat more).
  • People eat way too much sugar world-wide, with the US leading the way with an average consumption of over 600 calories a day per person.  (The map highlighting this in the article is frighten but fascinating – Ecuador is low, while Columbia is high, go figure).
  • 30% more people are obese than malnourished worldwide.  In the US the US Joint Chief of Staffs have now declared obesity a “threat to national security.”

Whose Taxing – What’s Proposed:

According to the article, Canada and many countries in Europe already have a tax on some sweetened food.  In the US the government is apparently thinking about putting a 1-cent per ounce tax on sweetened food.   Honey not being “sweetened” is pretty safe, but a fabulous raw honey infused organic vinegar would be taxed (now why would I think of that product?)

The Authors Tax Proposal:

Again, the authors do not seem to be after jars of honey, but rather the foods to which sugar has bee added.  “…We propose adding taxes to processed foods that contain any form of added sugars, such as HFCS and sucrose.” These would seem to include sodas, juice, spots drinks, sugared cereal, and value-added honey products.  The also propose regulating when and where drinks like sodas, sugar-added juices, and sports drinks could be sold.

In my humble opinion:

In the US, rather than taxing the food, perhaps the authors might look to putting on pressure to end the US corn subsidies, which have made HFCS a cheap, and clearly addicitive, ingredient in so many foods and drinks.   A rise the price of the corn syrup will affect the manufactures and processors far more quickly than a new food tax on the general population.  At the same time, the efforts to educate people though the media could be increased.

Why the Emphasis on Taxation, not Education:

The authors do propose both education and taxation (but not limitations on corn subsidies).  Their main emphasis is on taxation, however.  As a reason, they point to tobacco and alcohol.  They feel that while education helped, the rise in prices, due to taxes, was the primary contributor to the decline in the consumption of these products.  They’ve got the research, but it seems to me that a few cents never slowed anyone down from smoking or drinking. I think media saturation about deaths and the human costs to ones family and friends due to tobacco and alcohol spread the word and had a lot to do with reduced consumption. The authors seem to hope that a few cents will change how the general public shops and eats.  Maybe they are correct, but I have my doubts.

All Things In Moderation

The research presented by Dr. Lustig, Dr. Schmidt and Dr. Brindis is compelling.  We need to consume less sugar for our health and reduce or remove the added “sugar” from processed foods, which will keep health care costs down.   We can still eat honey.  Remember, Dr. Brindis said: “… we should be at about 9 teaspoons (a day).”  So eating honey’s still OK.  Just don’t go overboard – all things in moderation seems to work for most things in life.

To Find The Article:

The article is well written, fascinating, and frightening.  It’s in Nature, February 2, 2012, (Volume #482).  You can read it on line for $36.

If you don’t have $36 to spare to read it on line, head on down to your library.  If the library does not have Nature, have them get it for you though an interlibrary loan.  Hopefully this works outside of the US as well.

Do give a read and let me know what you think.

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