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  Sweet Talk: Why we need a sugar tax in India

Sweet Talk: Why we need a sugar tax in India

Published : May 11, 2016, 6:13 am IST
Updated : May 11, 2016, 6:13 am IST

India is growing at the waist. And it’s not a good thing. So when the West is shaping up to introduce game-changing new laws to fight hazardous sugar levels in food, why can’t we be learning a few important lessons

 India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar. It is also the world’s largest consumer. Which means we consume .
  India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar. It is also the world’s largest consumer. Which means we consume .

India is growing at the waist. And it’s not a good thing. So when the West is shaping up to introduce game-changing new laws to fight hazardous sugar levels in food, why can’t we be learning a few important lessons

In March this year, Britain announced a brave new Sugar Tax on their soft drinks industry based on the volume of sugary beverages they produced or imported. The tax is expected to make any edible item, having added sugars beyond permissible limits, costly for consumption. Expected to raise about $750 million, the new tax will be in effect from 2018, giving time to soft drink makers to reduce sugar content and rejig recipes.

Britain then joins many countries in the world waking up to the alarming rise in the levels of sugar in everything from beverages and condiments and its direct correlation to diabetes and childhood obesity. It took less time for British legislators to impose a tax on excessive use of sugar than to decide whether to exit the Eurozone or not. About four million people in the UK are diabetic and as one leading expert John Lancaster put it: Obesity is the new “smoking” and Sugar is the new “tobacco”.

But even as other countries are preparing the ground to regulate excessive dosages of sugar in processed foods and sugary drinks, the situation is more alarming in India. According to reports, India is the world’s second largest producer of sugar (291 million tonnes). It is also the world’s largest consumer (248.8 million tonnes). Which means we consume almost as much as we grow. You can feel it on the ground too, as groundwater levels go down — not just in Marathwada (Maharashtra) because sugarcane, from which sugar is processed, is one of the most water-absorbing crops.

Elsewhere, there is a proliferation of sweet shops, supermarket chains, mega stores and wholesale chains selling more and more processed foods laden with heavy doses of sugar. All these are taking a toll on public health — diseases like diabetes are on the rise. With a huge population and a growing addiction to sugar-saturated foods and drinks, India is ending up as the diabetes capital of the world, with one out of every four Indians either insulin-resistant or a confirmed diabetic.

Childhood obesity is also growing in India. According to a study by the National Diabetes, Obesity and Cholesterol Foundation, Mumbai ranked second in Childhood Obesity — 33 per cent children in private schools and 7.9 per cent in public schools were obese. In Delhi, 31.5 per cent children in private schools were obese. For major cities, the national average came to one out of every five children as obese.

The whole problem started with the mandatory disclosure of fats in the 1980s (in the West) and in the 1990s (in India). Awareness soared about the grammages of various fats: saturated fat, monosaturated fat, transfat etc Then came the disclosure about cholesterol. Also, sugar soon became an easy ingredient to mix in the processed foods. For soda makers, this boosted their chances of concocting a heady mixture of carbonated water with reckless levels of sugar that mostly go unnoticed. While America’s Food and Drug Administration’s norms peg the maximum sugar permissible at 50 gms, notice that many packaged foods and even energy drinks sold today in India blatantly flout permissible levels.

But unlike processed foods, sugary drinks cannot be mixed with healthy elements such as fibre and protein, they have to be doused with more sugar — and that does more damage. Sales of packaged foods today touch $2.2 trillion across the world (as much as India’s GDP while the sale of fizzy drinks like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have jumped to $532 billion. In India, sales of colas have quadrupled in the past decade.

So with no law in force to regulate sugar content (both in packaged foods which use additives, emulsifiers and stabilisers soaked in sugar and in fizzy drinks), the scene is turning from bad to worse with the likes of Ramesh Chauhan (the original soft drink czar who sold Thumbsup to Coke) now want to enter the energy drinks market which is getting adulterated with even higher levels of saturated sugar.

The thing is... it took the West years to realise the need to regulate sugar levels in everyday foods and drinks coming out of their own backyard and much collateral damage had already occurred before the Sugar tax plan. Fifty per cent of all the boys and 70 per cent of all girls in Britain are either obese or are running the risk. We’ll have to see when the Indian government will wake up to our own “sweet” problem, where MNCs, local drink manufacturers along with desi makers are seducing us with added sugars in foods and drinks. If not a sugar tax, a sugar cess at least should be considered.

Coke, Pepsi and a secret

In most countries, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have been fighting for the top spot for years. But history has it that both Coke and Pepsi were created by pharmacists in America. Coke was invented by Dr. John Pamberton in 1886 and Pepsi, by Caleb Bradham in 1893.

While both drinks contain ingredients such as vanilla, rare oils, carbonated water, kola nut extracts, and the widely-beloved high-fructose corn syrup, Coca-Cola packs one secret ingredient called, “7X”. The secret was so well-maintained that in 1977, the company was forced to abandon India after a law was passed to disclose all trade secrets to the government. In those years, Indians grew up on Gold Spot, Campa Cola, Limca and Citra until Ramesh Chauhan sold them to Coca-Cola in the year 1993. Of course, the law of 1977 was changed in 1991 which saw both Coke and Pepsi enter India again. They now control the soft drinks market, but also control a lion’s share of the mineral water segment.