Will a sugar tax solve SA's obesity problem?


Sugar is fast becoming the world’s number one public health enemy. It’s even been called the “new fat” and the “new tobacco”. The effects it has on the body have been described as similar to those of alcohol.

Too much of a sweet thing

Our bodies need sugar to function properly. All of the carbohydrates (including a variety of sugars) we consume are converted into glucose which provides cells, tissues, muscles and organs with an efficient energy source.

The World Health Organisation recommends that added sugar (i.e. extra sugar that is put into food products during processing) should contribute no more than 10% to a daily diet. Depending on size, age and physical activity, this is equivalent to a maximum of approximately 70 grams for men and 50 grams for women.

With as much as 35 grams of sugar in a single can of cooldrink, many South Africans consume considerably more added sugar than that every day.

Read: 10 foods with hidden sugar

Unfortunately, any excess consumption beyond the body’s needs can cause a range of health problems, including:

• Obesity

The body stores surplus glucose as glycogen, but once its storage capacity for this substance is exhausted, it’s turned into fat.

In addition, excess fructose (a main component of the kind of sugar added to food and drinks) is linked to an increase in resistance to a hormone called leptin, which tells the body when it has had enough food, resulting in chronic overeating.

While the food and beverage industry has consistently denied the connection, a number of studies have established a strong relationship between high sugar consumption and obesity, particularly in children. Well over half the South African population is overweight or obese.

Obesity in turn increases the risk of a number of medical conditions, including high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes.

• Cholesterol

Some studies suggest a link between excessive sugar intake and lower HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels, a strong risk factor for heart disease.

• Diabetes

Eating large amounts of sugar can result in resistance to insulin, the hormone that regulates blood glucose levels, which is believed to be a main cause of type II diabetes as well as other disease, such as metabolic syndrome, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

Liver overload

A sustained oversupply of sugar, especially fructose, can have toxic effects on the liver and result in non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and liver damage.


A recent animal study suggests that daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) can impair learning ability and memory, especially during adolescence.

Taxing sugar

A number of countries, including France, Mexico, and more than 30 US states currently levy taxes on SSBs and the Department of Health is reportedly considering this as a possibility for South Africa.

In a paper published in August, scientists at the University of the Witwatersrand estimate that a 20% tax on SSBs could lead to over 220 000 fewer cases of adult obesity in the country – a significant figure for a nation considered to be the most overweight in sub-Saharan Africa.

Professor Karen Hofman, one of the authors explains that: "drinking just one SSB a day increases the likelihood of being overweight by 27% for adults and 55% for children."

Read: Taxing sugary drinks may reduce obesity in SA

No quick fix solution

Few experts believe that a sugar tax on its own will be enough to stem the growing epidemic in obesity and other sugar-related health problems.

A “soda tax” would only be effective if the resulting revenue would be used to fund public initiatives like school-based nutrition programmes and the promotion of physical activity.

Several additional measures have been proposed as part of a multi-pronged strategy, including:

• a commitment from food producers to reduce the added sugar content of their goods

• mandatory health warnings on advertisements and packaging of sugar-rich foods, similar to those for alcohol and tobacco

• laws to regulate the sugar content of processed food

• an age-limit for the sale of food containing added sugar; and

• laws regulating the marketing of sugar-rich foods, especially to children, for example by limiting or banning TV ads or guaranteeing equal advertising time for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Read: Is sugar a baddie?

While critics may complain that introducing a tax on sugary food will be inefficient, disrupt beneficial market forces and increase the reach of the meddling “nanny state”, research suggests that as part of a comprehensive public health policy, such a tax represents a valuable tool in the fight against obesity and its consequences.

Read More:

Why your body needs sugar
IBS tied to fat, fructose
Take the sugar test. It could save your life.

Image: Types of sugar from Shutterstock

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