Column |  What kind of soft drink tax do you want?

Column | What kind of soft drink tax do you want?

The Ministry of Finance emailed me that they want to change the sugar tax on drinks and that I can comment. What do I think of their new proposals?

Sugary drinks such as fruit juice and soft drinks are nice and sweet and you don’t have to chew them, they just slide down your mouth. The calories slide in and that is why sugary drinks are fattening. If the price goes up, people will drink less of it, so a sugar tax will lead to less obesity and associated diseases. The increase in the tax on non-alcoholic drinks as of January 1 was therefore presented as a health measure. Mineral water was excluded, that is logical. The dairy lobby also managed to get chocolate milk and sweetened yoghurt drinks exempt by arguing that dairy is so important as a source of protein and other nutrients.

That was the first flaw in this new ‘soft drinks tax’. What’s worse is that the sugar content of drinks doesn’t seem to matter, for flavored water with zero percent sugar the same rate applies as for cola. That’s because the government wasn’t really concerned with promoting health; the tax was mainly to raise money, they honestly admitted that.

This drinks tax led to violent protests. Parliament passed several motions against it and he was razed to the ground in publicity. The government is now presenting a thorough new report. In it they describe five different scenarios for a sugar tax on drinks. Furthermore, the House will have to figure it out for itself, the government is outgoing and no longer wants to burn itself over this hot potato. The new report does ask relevant questions about what a sugar tax should look like. That’s why this is the right time to go through those questions.

Quite crazy

The first question is: should the tax, and therefore the price of the drink, increase with the sugar content? Yes, quite a bit: if you want to reduce sugar consumption, the tax should be higher the more sugar it contains. Thanks to such a graduated tax, we would eat more than one kilo of sugar less per person per year.

Second question: should milk and buttermilk be taxed? After all, does that contain milk sugar? But milk sugar is not ordinary sugar, it is much less sweet. Therefore, milk is not a sweet drink. Drinking too much milk does not seem to me to be an important cause of obesity and a sugar tax on milk and buttermilk does not seem sensible to me.

The third question concerns dairy drinks to which regular sugar has been added, such as Fristi and Chocomel. These are now exempt from tax even though they contain as much sugar as cola. They provide some protein, but that is no reason to exempt them, because the Dutch get enough protein. At most, elderly people who eat vegan need some extra protein. Appelsientje is now taking advantage of dairy by adding a drop of milk to his orange juice and thus avoiding the tax. Other producers will follow. That gap must be closed and the exemption for sweetened dairy drinks must be abolished.

A fourth question concerns plant-based milk substitutes such as oat milk. They are now taxed. There is no evidence that they make you fat, but that has never been properly researched. The complication is that there are many types of plant-based milk, some of which are full of good nutrients and are healthier than regular milk, but others are mainly water with sugar. You need to take a nutrition textbook and a magnifying glass with you to the supermarket to find out which carton of plant-based milk has the right composition. That’s why it might not be such a bad idea to tax plant milk the same as soft drinks for the time being. Manufacturers may then provide evidence that their product does not make you fat. There must also be a reliable quality mark that guarantees that a plant milk contains as much protein, vitamins and minerals as real milk and preferably also the vitamin D and essential fatty acids that are missing in milk. And not too much sugar. Once that is all done, the tax can be removed again.

A fattener

Finally, the pure fruit and vegetable juices. Fruit juice contains the same type of sugar as soft drinks and the sugar content is often even higher. It may contain vitamin C and a little fiber, but that makes little difference; Fruit juice is fattening and should be taxed, just like mixtures of fruit and vegetable juice. Vegetable juice is not particularly healthy, so taxing it based on sugar content seems OK to me. Pure vegetable juices usually contain little or no sugar, so they are hardly affected by this burden. Carrot and beet juice, which naturally contain sugar, are already so expensive that a little tax makes little difference.

That’s how I think about it. For MPs who read this: I am in favor of the government’s scenario I, but without milk and buttermilk. The government would also like to hear your opinion, reader. You can provide this at internetconsultatie.nl. Who knows, maybe next time you will receive an email, because we are not done with the sugar tax yet.

Martijn Katan is a biochemist and emeritus professor of nutrition at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. For figures, sources and interests see mkatan.nl.

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