One fact the sugar tax report misses out: our consumption has been falling for years

Public Health England’s long-awaited report on sugar was published yesterday. I say ‘long awaited’ but hardly anybody had heard of it until last Monday when Sarah Wollaston created a storm in a teacup by claiming it had been suppressed by the government. As Wollaston must have known, and as the media has gleefully reported this week, it included a tax on sugar among its recommendations.

Many people seem to have misunderstood the purpose of the Public Health England report. It was not intended to be a cost-benefit analysis of anti-obesity policies. It was focused entirely on how sugar consumption could be reduced at the population level. Since that was its only aim, it is not surprising that a sugar tax was suggested as a possibility — albeit only the fourth best possibility, in the view of its authors.

If I had been forced to write a report about how the consumption of sugar — or any other product — could be reduced, I would have mentioned taxation as well. The law of demand, arguably the most basic concept in economics, is an obvious place to start. Nobody has ever denied that higher prices tend to lead to less consumption. The argument against a sugar tax is not that it would have no effect on demand, but that the effect would be trivial, the impact on obesity would be virtually non-existent and the impact on consumers would be negative and regressive.

The authors of the Public Health England report did not weigh up the pros and the cons of a sugar tax because that is not what they were charged with doing. They did not need to look at the consequences, except those related to consumption. They did not even ask whether less sugar consumption would lead to less obesity, they simply assumed that it would. In one of the Annexes to the report, they explicitly state that they had ‘very little insight’ into a host of issues, including the ‘difference in short- and long-term effects, the extent and nature of a regressive (and progressive) effect and an understanding of compensatory behaviours and their impact on individual and population level dietary intake and nutritional quality overall’ — in other words, all the issues you’d need to look at to make a balanced judgment.

A report that recommends a sugar tax without looking at the impact on dietary intake or the economic impact on the poor is a one-sided effort, to say the least. If you take a rose-tinted view of the benefits and ignore the costs, any policy will seem attractive. Fortunately, politicians have so far taken a broader view and have rejected the idea of a sugar tax. Let’s hope they hold their nerve.

It is worth asking why Public Health England is so insistent on reducing our sugar consumption in the first place. On page 27, we get this slightly unnerving explanation:

‘What we eat now is very different to what we ate 30 or 40 years ago. As a result of advances in technology, economic development and other factors the food and drinks market has evolved to provide more choice than ever before. We are constantly nudged towards buying and eating more food — our environment is filled with more food outlets (shops, restaurants, takeaways and fast food restaurants, cafes and coffee shops) and, in real terms, food is cheaper than ever before.

‘We now spend significantly less every week on our groceries — between 1957 and 2006 the proportion of our average weekly expenditure spent on food and non-alcoholic drinks has halved from 33 per cent to 15 per cent which is good for household budgets but not necessarily so good for our food choices. While none of this is anyone’s fault, it’s time to change this and influencing our overall supply of food and drink is critical so that improvements are made to what is available to us and what we actually eat.’

This tells you a great deal about the mentality of the ‘public health’ lobby. They are strangely attracted to scarcity and want. For example, they have a peculiar fetish for how Cuba made people slimmer through poverty. What we see in the paragraph above is an account of economic progress as a Bad Thing. We have ‘more choice than ever before’, we have ‘more food outlets’ and ‘food is cheaper than ever before’. Food poverty has been virtually eradicated and our grocery bill is now a small fraction of our weekly outgoings. But rather than celebrating this triumph over scarcity, Public Health England portrays it as a step backwards and asserts that ‘it’s time to change’.

‘None of this anyone’s fault’, they say, as if we might be tempted to point the finger of blame! Has it really come to this? Do we really have to feel bad about having more choice, lower prices and more disposable income?

Besides, where has all this economic progress left us? According to Public Health England, the food we eat today is ‘very different to what we ate 30 or 40 years ago’. They do not go into detail about what the differences are, but they do provide a citation to a Defra report entitled Family Food 2013 which notes that ‘energy content of food purchases has been on a downward trend since 1965’ and ‘energy intake per person declined 31 per cent between 1974 and 2013’.

If you dig around in Defra’s source material, you can see that sugar consumption has declined by 16 per cent since 1992. This is confirmed by data on the availability of sugar which shows a decline of about 20 per cent since the 1970s. It is also confirmed by the National Diet and Nutrition Survey and the Nutritional Survey of British Adults. We can argue about the exact size of the decline, but all the evidence points in the same direction. We eat less sugar today than we did in Public Health England’s shangri-la of 30 or 40 years ago.

This, of course, is contrary to popular perceptions, but every popular perception about sugar is contrary to the evidence at this time of mass hysteria.

  • jude

    Actually the food I eat today is the same as the food I ate 30-40 years ago, I find I eat less now though, but that is because I’m now an adult and not growing anymore, (unless you count just growing older). This latest brain fart from PH is just another attempt for them to try and stay relevant, at best, at worst its probably an attempt to cover up what is really causing a lot of health problems, and I have the feeling this is nothing to do with what we are eating.

  • alexw

    Utter misleading rubbish. The amount of sugar, as in bags of sugar bought in shops and consumed, has declined, but the total amount of sugars has not because vastly more is added to pre-manufactured foods than used to be the case.

    If you can’t counter an argument then use statistical data to mislead to the extent its no different than a lie, seems to be the authors modus operandi.

    • chrissnowdon

      The figures aren’t based on bags of sugar bought from shops, they are the total amount of sugar consumed per head of population from all sources.

      • alexw

        Except that is “sugar” not sugars. The amount of sugar consumed has declined since we buy very little actual sugar as compared to the past – which is what I stated.

        But this does not include HFC, dextrose, maltose, molasses, and all the other simple sugars that are now added to food. On that basis we consume a LOT more added “sugar” than in the past.

        • chrissnowdon

          No, it’s all sugars including HFCS which almost unknown in Britain anyway, but thanks for playing.

          • Tarek

            I suggest dipping into a biochemistry textbook if you think all sugars are the same thing.

          • JonathanBagley

            Chris isn’t saying all sugars are the same thing. He is reporting that total sugar consumption, which includes all sugars, is in decline. Alexw, Why bring pasta into it? There is virtually no sugar in pasta – just lots of starch. Nobody here so far has said it’s bad for you or causes obesity.

          • Tarek

            Im afraid he is and I’m also afraid that your contention that there is no ” sugar in pasta” is not entirely accurate.

            The beauty of knowledge today is that it is accessible to those who actively seek it; the good old days where e.g. biochemical knowledge was open only to those who studied it at university are thankfully long gone and hence there is no excuse for the gross generalisation and inaccurate characterisations found in this and other similar articles.

            There is no such thing as ” sugar” per se as the term is meaningless. We divide carbohydrates into complex and simple carbohydrates. These are further classified into polysaccharides like starch ( long chains of glucose), disaccharides like sucrose ( comprised of glucose and fructose) and monosaccharides e.g. single chain glucose molecules. All of these are at a basic level ” sugars” and all are different in molecular structure and chemical behaviour.

            People erroneously call what we know as table sugar ” sugar” when in reality any carbohydrate can be thought of at a very simple and misleading level as sugar. Ultimately all of them result in the same biochemical reaction ie. the release of insulin. The difference between starch and glucose is that glucose results in an immediate release of insulin whereas starch is associated with a more sustained release, albeit over a longer time period.

            Hence the assertion that ” sugar consumption has gone down” is meaningless, given the lack of precise definition, mandatory when discussing any scientific matter, where ” sugar” is concerned. The fact that over the last 20 years carbohydrate derivatives like high fructose corn syrup are used more and more in all manner of products as an alternative to ” table sugar” given how much cheaper it is, from salad dressing, ketchup and soft drinks not to mention cakes and other produce makes Chris’s claims of decreased ” sugar” consumption utterly fanciful given the reality that these products are being consumed in larger quantities, as are ” healthy” processed low-fat foods or ready-to-eat meals, than ever before.

            carbohydrates are used as thickening agents, to make food last longer, to make food more palatable, to cover up the loss of taste when fat is take out, and of course in confectionary. Unless I’ve missed some wholesale, multibillion dollar ” natural food revolution” consumers are eating more processed food, year on year and have been doing so for at least 20 yrs. Sugar consumption decreased? I don’t think so.

            To intelligently discuss an issue one must be versed in its basics. Sadly when it comes to science, ignorance is now a badge worn with great pride, particularly when statistics and generalisations are used to hide that ignorance.

          • pastpresentfuture

            Completely false.

            See Chris get taken apart here:


  • pastpresentfuture

    This is simply untrue. See the author of this article get completely torn apart on this issue in a Ch4 interview:


      Harldy torn apart. I notice the interviewer had to resort to the usual ad hominem attack at the end.

  • David Gillespie

    There is no more likely to be a UK Paradox (sugar consumption declining while obesity increases) than there is to be an ‘Australian Paradox’. Read this for the tragic tale of the eminent nutritionists and persistent economist who ripped their ‘research’ apart.