Consider many approaches in curbing sugary drinks

Mexico is the current poster child for the sugar tax, having managed to reduce the purchases of sugary beverages by 5.5 per cent in 2014 and 9.7 per cent in 2015, following the imposition of such a tax (Sugar tax, warning labels, ad curbs in other nations; Aug 23).

It is unsurprising that the authorities here and elsewhere are mulling over such a tax as well.

There are, however, a couple of caveats.

It is unclear whether such a tax will eventually reduce the incidence of diabetes and obesity in Mexico, as the tax was introduced only in late 2013.

Also, in Mexico, the largest decrease in purchases of taxed beverages was observed among households at the lowest socioeconomic level.

One must question whether a sugar tax will perform as well in a wealthy nation, where citizens may be more willing to stomach such a tax.

The second approach of encouraging manufacturers of sweetened drinks to come up with healthier alternatives is laudable.

But there is only so much that a recipe can be tweaked before the beverage loses its character and consumer appeal.

Even the use of artificial sweeteners is not a panacea, with newer studies suggesting that artificial sweeteners may, themselves, increase the risk of diabetes.

A third approach that might be considered would be to lower the accessibility of sugary beverages.

While this is already done in schools, it is not uncommon to see schoolchildren crowding into nearby fast-food restaurants after school and having sweetened drinks with their unhealthy meals.

This situation is made worse by the fact that fast-food meals are frequently packaged together with sugary drinks at a substantial discount, compared to beverages bought a la carte.

Food outlets should be discouraged from including sugary drinks as part of a value meal.

Manufacturers and supermarkets could also be discouraged from offering discounts on sugary drinks.

Finally, instead of focusing solely on soft drinks, other drinks with high sugar content should also be looked into.

These would potentially include "healthier" options such as yogurt drinks, fruit juice drinks and even fruit juices themselves.

Some of these drinks may offer some nutrients and vitamins, but sticking to a healthy diet will allow people to easily acquire these nutrients as well, without the accompanying added sugar.

Daniel Ng Peng Keat (Dr)

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 29, 2017, with the headline 'Consider many approaches in curbing sugary drinks'. Print Edition | Subscribe