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Artificial sweeteners included in sugar tax

By Isabelle Coetzee

Since the start of April, sugar-free – but sweetened – beverages have also been taxed under the Sugary Beverages Levy (SBL).

According to Tertius Troost, senior tax consultant at Mazars, it depends on the “sugar” content of beverages whether it will be subjected to the new sugar tax or not.

He explained that the term “sugar” includes intrinsic sugars, added sugars, and artificial sweeteners. The amount of “sugar” is measured in each beverage and – based on this – the tax is calculated.

The levy, which was passed in December 2017, aims to reduce the high sugar consumption among South Africans. But, compared to sugar, how can sweeteners affect your health?

But first, the case of sugar…

According to dietician Rael Koping, the biggest health risk threatening industrialised societies is called Metabolic Syndrome (MetS).

“If left unchecked, MetS often progresses to heart disease, diabetes, or stroke, and it is recognised as a sugar metabolism disorder,” said Koping.

“It can be described as the body’s inability to manage its net sugar load. It is considered a disease of lifestyle, and it is completely avoidable by following a balanced diet and exercise program,” he said.

Koping believes the sugar tax is aimed at encouraging healthy eating habits and, both directly and indirectly, defraying the cost of medical treatment.

“The diseases associated with sugar and, by extension, carbohydrates (i.e. breads, candies, and colas) are clearly understood and have reached epidemic proportions,” he explained.

So what about artificial sweeteners?

Looking at sugar substitutes, Koping pointed out that the associated risks are less understood. Possible diseases resulting from sweeteners may include certain types of cancer or neurological diseases, like Alzheimer’s.

“Sugar substitutes are extensively tested before they are granted food status,” said Koping.

“Because of this, much of the evidence against artificial sweeteners are enmeshed with conspiracy theories,” he explained.

Which is more harmful? 

Koping believes people have different sugar tolerances. In his opinion, it all depends on a person’s personal health, as well as their family history.

“If there is a family history of diabetes, or one has the symptoms of MetS, then clearly sugar presents a clear and present danger,” he explained.

“Conversely, if you don’t have such a family history, nor exhibit the MetS symptoms, you could consume either sugar or artificial sweeteners,” said Koping.  

The most conservative advice he could offer was to adapt one’s palette to unsweetened foods and consume as little as possible of both sugar and artificial sweeteners.

Will the tax reduce “sugar” consumption?

According to Troost, whether an increase in the price will drive down consumption depends on the price elasticity of the product.

The more elastic a product is, the more likely consumers are to substitute it with another product. For example, if avocados become more expensive, people may substitute this purchase with more seasonal fruit and vegetables. 

On the other hand, the more inelastic a product is, the less likely consumers are to substitute it with another product. For example, if cigarettes become more expensive, consumers will continue to buy the same amount, regardless of the higher price.

Troost estimates that South Africa could see a 6 – 8% decrease in consumption of sugary beverages. However, he believes the number of beverages purchased will either remain steady or decrease.

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