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Tax sugary foods and drinks because their biggest consumers are children

analysis Updated: Oct 14, 2016 15:54 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times
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Several countries already have junk food tax. Hungary taxes packaged foods with high sugars, salt or caffeine, Mexico taxes sugary drinks, and South Africa, The Philippines and Britain have announced plans to start doing so (Sushil Kumar/HT PHOTO)

Do you want the government to police what you eat? Of course not. Do you want your doctor prescribe a healthy diet for you? Absolutely.

Everyone hates taxes and the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation that countries tax sugary drinks to increase the retail price by 20% is unlikely to get support from anyone outside the public health sector. With reason – no one likes paying more.

Read | The WHO proposal of taxes on sugary drinks is not a practical advice. Here’s why

Yes, added taxes are a bit extreme. Yes, governments should stop controlling what you eat and instead focus on red-flagging the health hazards and trust you to make an informed choice.

That’s how things should be in a perfect world, but we live in one where a powerful food industry controls what we eat and choose profit over public health.

Foods full of hidden “free sugars” that you don’t even know you’re having reach places where people don’t have safe water or medicines.

Read: World Obesity Day: How the health hazard can ruin your sexual and social life

Sugars enhance taste and prolong shelf life and are often added to foods not even perceived as sweet. One tablespoon of ketchup contains around one teaspoon (4 gm) of sugar, but no one thinks of it as sweet.

And though we all know colas are sugary, we don’t really know how much. One can (330 ml) have seven teaspoons (35 gm) of sugar, which is one teaspoon more than the WHO-recommended upper limit of six teaspoons (25 gm) of free sugar each day for a healthy adult.

Read: World Obesity Day: WHO urges price hikes on sugary drinks to promote fitness

While you can have as much of intrinsic sugars found in fresh whole fruits, vegetables and milk because they do not harm health, you need to shun free sugars. These include monosaccharides (such as glucose or fructose) and disaccharides (such as sucrose or table sugar) added to foods and drinks, and natural sugars in honey, syrups, fruit juices, and fruit juice concentrates.

Read: Obesity Day lesson: Water before meals effective strategy to lose weight

Why we need taxes is because the biggest consumers of sugary foods are children, adolescents and young adults, who are often too uninformed or too reckless to make the right food choices.

India is home to the third highest number of overweight people in the world, after China and the US, and rising obesity in children will turn obesity into an epidemic over the next two decades. Close to one in five (19.3%) children in India are overweight or obese, up from one in six (16.3%) in 2005, found a review of 52 studies done across in 16 states. Obesity is a risk factor for heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers, which between them kill third of India’s population.

Several countries already have junk food tax. Hungary taxes packaged foods with high sugars, salt or caffeine, Mexico taxes sugary drinks, and South Africa, The Philippines and Britain have announced plans to start doing so.

Nutritionally, your diet doesn’t need added sugar and shunning sugary food and drink reduces unnecessary calories substantially, particularly in the diets of children, adolescents and young adults. They are the biggest consumers of packaged foods and the ones we need to protect from the hazards of free sugars.

Taxing sugars, however, is not enough. Governments also need to ensure fresh fruits and vegetables are widely available and bring down their prices by 10–30% to give people healthy alternatives.