At last count, 28 countries and seven large cities in the USA had moved to introduce a tax on sugary drinks. Potential benefits are clear and include reducing costs from obesity and health-care spending, as well as the potential to increase a healthy life. When Britain legislated for a sugary drink tax, graded according to the quantity of sugar used, some manufacturers significantly reduced the amount of sugar in their drinks before the law even came into practice.
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Is a sugar tax going to happen?
There are 28 countries in the world that tax sugar-sweetened drinks. Echoing the tactic of some British companies, Coca-Cola is claiming it has taken action by “reducing sugar in 22 of our drinks since 2015”, and is committing to “make all our new Coca-Cola flavours either reduced or no sugar”. Their aim is for a 10 per cent reduction across their range by 2020.
No nutritionist is going to knock reductions in sugar content, but even a single can of the new Coca-Cola with Stevia has 37 per cent of the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) recommended maximum daily intake of sugar for an adult. The other products listed still have 55-78 per cent of the WHO maximum recommendation. Smaller pack sizes are being introduced and will help. And no-sugar versions of their major products are available, sweetened with intense (artificial) sweeteners such as stevia, acesulphame K, sucralose and aspartame.
Stevia can be made from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant which contain a variety of steviol compounds. These bypass digestion in the small intestine and are broken down by bacteria in the colon. Global food standards has approved the use of a wide range of different steviol compounds. Labelled either by its name or “additive 960”, stevia is marketed by some as a “natural” product. Although what is added to drinks and other foods is a highly purified extract, often blended with a sugar alcohol (usually erythritol) or complex carbohydrates called oligosaccharides.
In its favour, stevia has virtually no kilojoules, and can be used by those with diabetes. But its effect on “good” bacteria in the colon may be undesirable. Arguments continue to rage over whether intense sweeteners are beneficial or not. Some studies claim they help with weight loss. Others say they may increase the risk of excess weight and some associated health problems. Their effect on the “good” gut bacteria also needs careful evaluation.
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