diet drinks

Source: Dash Water

Could it be time for a sweetener tax?

The UK government has attracted criticism for the latest tactic in its anti-smoking drive: handing out free vapes. It’s been billed as an attempt to reduce smoking by providing a nicotine hit without the harmful by-products you get in cigarettes.

But concerns are growing that these claims might mislead people – especially young people – to see vapes as a “healthier alternative”. The fact is, despite all the cute colours and fruity flavours, vapes are still bad for you.

There’s a similar problem brewing in the beverage sector with artificial sweeteners. Sweeteners have long been marketed as a healthier alternative to sugar in fizzy drinks. But a growing number of scientists such as renowned epidemiologist Tim Spector, and even the World Health Organization, are challenging this narrative. Instead of being a consequence-free sugar substitute, research shows sweeteners trick our body into craving more sugar. Not only can they affect our weight, but they can damage our overall metabolic health.

Yet even as the evidence against sweeteners is mounting, the $2bn industry behind them shows no sign of slowing. Much of the information provided to inform decisions on marketing and advertising around sweeteners has been created by the same businesses profiting from their use.

Data tells us only half of the public are consciously avoiding sweeteners in their purchases. To change this, we urgently need to invest in research to better understand the health implications of sweeteners and clamp down on advertising that promotes them as a healthy choice. Regulation needs to be tightened too – recent HFSS rules have simply led to a lazy industry-wide substitution of sweeteners for sugar. Could it be time for a sweetener tax?

Perhaps most importantly, from shops to schools, we need to educate people to see through health-washing claims. Many people still believe they are making a positive health decision when choosing sweetened drinks over sugary ones. This won’t change until we make it clear that sweeteners are simply a lesser evil.

Sweeteners, vapes… there’s no such thing as a magic health bullet. Only the same old products in more benign packaging. Letting the status quo remain will only hurt us in the long run.