The Swedish Cancer Foundation recently sounded the alarm that a regular Fanta sold in Sweden contains three times more sugar than the corresponding drink in the UK. The example was highlighted to show that the sugar tax that has existed for many years in both the UK and several of our neighboring countries is really having an effect. But is it really that simple? Admittedly, those who drink a British, Mexican or Finnish Fanta ingest significantly less sugar, but to compensate, the producer has replaced the sugar with artificial sweeteners that are between 500 and 700 times sweeter than regular sugar. The small amounts needed for the sweetening effect add almost no calories, but research has shown that they can have a negative effect on the sensitive intestinal flora and that they can trigger your sugar cravings even more than regular sugar. Drinking a sugar-free soda for lunch could therefore make it harder to resist sweet treats later in the day and in the long run lead to weight gain. Pregnant women who drink artificially sweetened sodas regularly also have an increased risk of having overweight babies.
Apart from being a bit surprised that the Swedish Cancer Foundation seems to take a stand on drinks with artificial sweeteners, I am also doubtful about the effect of a sugar tax. In Denmark, where it was introduced in 2009, it was removed a few years later because it wasn´t considered to have an effect. In Norway, where it has existed for almost 40 years and was increased as late as 2018, it has given rise to an explosive increase in candy sales in the Swedish border trade. And in Finland it has not reduced the consumption of sweets, whereas the consumption of soft drinks with sweeteners has increased at the expense of sugar soft drinks.
I have no doubt that there is a connection between what – and how – we eat and the development of disease in society. In fact, I have spent my entire research life trying to find ways to prevent disease risks with the help of food. Reducing sugar is a way to reduce your energy consumption and avoid large blood sugar fluctuations. But is it really the right way to go to exchange sugar for sweeteners surrounded with question marks? And after all sugar is only part of the problem.
We, or at least very many of us, tend to eat more and more processed foods. The white flour in the hamburger bread, pizza dough or breakfast toast makes the blood sugar rise both higher and faster than it does from pure sugar, and then sink like a stone again almost immediately. And there are many more examples of foods containing these “fast” carbohydrates. In the long run, the blood sugar fluctuations strain our metabolism, drive inflammation and increase the risk of obesity and so-called lifestyle diseases.
A tax on sugar could, on the one hand, be a good and clear signal from society that we should consume less of just that. On the other hand, it can also help our driving force to change other dietary and lifestyle habits that are at least as bad as sugar for our health. In addition, increasing knowledge doesn´t exactly speak to the advantage of the plethora of artificial sweeteners.
My own recipe? Eat what is natural, but eat (and drink) a little less of it. This also applies to sugar. In my next blog post, I will share my five best tips for avoiding the major blood sugar fluctuations that underlie so many health problems. You can get one immediately: Drink water with your food!
Want more info? Here are two links to research reports about artificial sweeteners