Is the sugar tax all it’s cracked up to be?

So the UK sugar tax finally came into being this week. That’s a good thing right? Soft drinks manufacturers who fail to reduce the amount of sugar in their drinks will be subject to higher taxes meaning the price of those drinks will increase (which will put people off buying them).

The extra money raised by the government can be ploughed into on health education, helping explain the dangers of a high-sugar diet, a key culprit when it comes to the obesity epidemic being suffered in the west.

In theory, that’s all well and good – or at least it is if it puts people off consuming high-sugar drinks. But what we are seeing with many soft drinks manufacturers is that they are simply replacing the sugar in their drinks with artificial sweeteners – which may be just as bad for our health as the sugar they replace in the first place.

Coke and Pepsi have kept their current high-sugar formulas and will pass the cost on to the customer either with higher priced products or selling less drink for the same amount. But brands like Irn-Bru, Ribena and Lucozade and many more are cutting sugar and replacing it with artificial sweeteners.

Irn-Bru’s website, for instance, says it is now ‘blended with a mix of low calorie sweeteners including aspartame, while Ribena now includes Acesulfame potassium and sucralose (commonly known as Splenda).

Aside from the fact artificial sweeteners significantly alter the taste of a drink – personally, I can’t stand that dreadful aftertaste – but many in the scientific world feel that not enough research has been done into their long-term effects on our health.

Critics claim they play havoc with our insulin levels potentially increasing our risk of metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. One study of more than 66,000 people (huge in science terms) showed they were associated with increased risk of type 2 diabetes, while  last year, a systematic review of scientific trials (the fold standard of scientific research) into artificial sweeteners concluded that there was no clear evidence that they were beneficial in weight management and that they could result in a long-term increase in BMI and elevated risk of cardiometabolic disease.

Not content with raising our BMI and increasing our risk of heart diseases. They may also be highly addictive. According to another study – admittedly on rats – the artificial sweetener saccharin proved to be more addictive than cocaine, even when the rats being exposed to the sweetener were previously addicted to cocaine! That’s right artificial sweeteners may be as addictive as cocaine.

While the authors found the results of some of the trials studied could have been influenced by publication bias – ie some of them were published in journals that may have had a vested interest in the results – they also advised people to exercise caution in the use of artificial sweeteners until the ‘long-term risks and benefits of these products are fully characterized.’

In short – avoid them until more is known about their effects. It sounds like wise advice to me. Why would you want to replace one poison in your body with another – especially a potentially highly addictive one.

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