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Should We be Taxing Sugar?


Sugar is not just empty calories; too much of it can be toxic to our livers. A new report is calling on governments to impose limits on the amount of sugar we eat.

Will that be one lump or two? You might want to consider that question very carefully, given emerging concerns over the potential toxic nature of sugar. Some scientists are now calling for measures to limit the amount of sugar in our diets—such as taxing sugar-loaded foods.

In a new report published in the journal Nature, a team of researchers from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) link the rising consumption of sugar to the global epidemic in non-communicable diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer

More than just empty calories

Nutritionists have long advocated less sugar in our diets, but their reasons were related to sugars’ empty calories. The UCSF scientists contend that not only does sugar introduce empty calories, but that those calories are metabolized differently and have a different—and possibly toxic—effect on the body.

“As long as the public thinks that sugar is just ‘empty calories,’ we have no chance in solving this,” said Robert Lustig, MD, a professor of pediatrics, in the division of endocrinology at UCSF and one of the report authors.

“There are good calories and bad calories, just as there are good fats and bad fats, good amino acids and bad amino acids, good carbohydrates and bad carbohydrates,” Lustig said. “But sugar is toxic beyond its calories.”

Toxic to the liver

For example, eating 100 calories of glucose from a potato will have different metabolic consequences to the 100 calories from sugar, which is half glucose and half fructose. The glucose is metabolized by every cell in the body while the fructose is metabolized by the liver.

When sugar is introduced in large quantities and/or in concentrated liquid forms (such as in soft drinks) the liver is forced to process the fructose into fat, which can induce insulin resistance. The report authors equate the health hazards invoked by consuming too much sugar to those of drinking too much alcohol—the distillation of sugar.

What can governments do?

Some of the suggestions in the Nature report included:

  • taxing sugar-containing products such as soft drinks
  • imposing age limits on the purchase of drinks with added sugars
  • tightening licensing requirements on vending machines and snack bars that sell sugary products in schools and workplaces
  • zoning bylaws for fast food outlets and convenience stores in low-income areas and around schools

Whether you make your own choices—go with one lump, not two—or wait until the heavy hand of government reaches into your pocketbook, there’s no doubt too much of a sweet thing will play havoc with your health.



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