In sweet-toothed Britain, sugary soda levy may have limited impact

LONDON (Reuters) - With its surprise move to tax sugary drinks, Britain joins several Western countries battling a key suspect in rising rates of obesity and diabetes, but health and industry experts say the levy is limited and its effect may be small.1

Biscuits depicting Britain's Queen Elizabeth and the Union flag sit on trays at Biscuiteers in London, Britain in this May 14, 2012 file photo. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett/Files

To be serious about cutting calorie intake by reducing sugar consumption, they say, authorities would need to go in harder on sugary drinks and much broader too - taking on less obvious targets such as dairy products and processed savory foods.

Britain’s finance minister George Osborne, announcing the tax on Wednesday, said it would apply to drinks with a total sugar content of more than 5 grams per 100 milliliters. A higher rate will apply to drinks with more than 8 grams per 100 ml.

The exact rate has not been specified, but will be charged on manufacturers and will come into force in April 2018. Fruit juices and milk-based drinks will be exempt, as will diet sodas.

France, Belgium, Hungary and Mexico have all imposed some form of tax on drinks with added sugar, while Scandinavian countries have levied similar taxes, with varying degrees of success, for several years.

The idea in Britain, Osborne said, is to target the sugar-laden cans of sodas like cola and lemonade often consumed by children in lower socio-economic groups - which studies show have higher rates of obesity and tooth decay.

Public Health England says its data show the average five-year-old consumes the equivalent of their body weight in sugar in the course of a year.

Yet while health, nutrition and market experts said the planned levy is a nod in the right direction toward encouraging healthier food choices and forcing companies to cut calories, they are skeptical about its likely real-life effect.

“Whether it will have any impact on sugar intake is uncertain,” said Tom Sanders, a professor of nutrition and dietetics at King’s College London.

“This is a step forward, but only one very small step,” added Naveed Sattar, a professor of metabolic medicine at Glasgow University.

That’s partly because in the great British diet - fueled by obvious sweet culprits such as cakes, biscuits and chocolate - sugar is pervasive, and hidden in unusual places.

With many consumers already choosing lower-calorie sodas, the British Soft Drink Association said the industry has already reduced sugar intake by 13.6 percent since 2012, while sugar and calorie intake from other food categories is increasing.

Nicola Mallard, an analyst with Investec, noted that “substitution is a big issue”.

“Yes, people (may) stop drinking soft drinks, but they go and get their sugar fix somewhere else,” she told Reuters.

A National Diet and Nutrition Survey in published in 2014 found that Britons get around 15 percent of their daily calories from added sugar - way above recommended levels.

“If you asked the majority of the population how much sugar they ate, the amount (they would say) would be much lower,” said Gail Rees, a nutrition expert at Plymouth University’s School of Biomedical and Healthcare Sciences.

“This is because so much of our western, processed diet contains hidden levels of the stuff. Sugar is lurking in any number of seemingly innocuous everyday foodstuffs, such as canned tomatoes, salad dressings, peanut butter, breakfast cereals, bread, pasta – the list goes on.”

According to the state-funded National Health Service (NHS), up to 27 percent of Britons’ daily intake of added sugar comes from table sugar, jams, chocolate and sweets, while another fifth comes in biscuits, buns and cakes.

Hidden below that is the 6 percent that comes in dairy products such as flavored milks, yoghurts and desserts like ice cream, and at least another 5 percent in savory processed foods like ready meals, stir-in sauces, ketchup and even crisps.

On its nutrition information website, the NHS cites a study by the consumer campaign group “Which?” that found some ready meals contain more sugar than vanilla ice cream.

“This tax on its own..will not solve the obesity crisis,” said Glasgow’s Sattar. “We need more legislation to force food companies to make better quality food products and less unhealthy products which contain less fat, salt and sugar.”

Editing by Anna Willard