Food and Behaviour Research

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The Case For Taxing Sugary Drinks - Sustain report - Children’s Future Fund;

Date: 2013

Food and Behaviour Research, along with more than 60 other organisations interested in public health and wellbeing, is lending its support to a new report by the UK charity Sustain that calls for a tax on sugary drinks to be imposed in the next UK budget.  

This evidence-based report argues that a duty of 20p per litre on sugary drinks could be used to create a 'Children’s Future Fund' which would invest in programmes to promote children’s health, and the health of the environments in which they grow up.

This call for action is obviously very timely, with pressure on public finances reaching critical levels and the UK government’s annual budget fast approaching.  Effective action is urgently needed, as it is clear that current attempts to combat obesity and related health problems just aren't working.

As Mike Rayner, Professor of Public Health at Oxford University and Chair of Sustain, said in a statement:

"Just as we use fiscal measures to discourage drinking and smoking and help prevent people from dying early, there is now lots of evidence that the same approach would work for food.

"This modest proposal goes some way towards making the price of food reflect its true costs to society. Our obesity epidemic causes debilitating illness, life-threatening diseases and misery for millions of people. It is high time government did something effective about this problem."

FAB Research and 60 other organisations interested in promoting public health agree.


  • Sugary drinks provide ‘empty calories’ (i.e. they have no nutritional value beyond the ‘quick energy’ they provide). This means that they either replace more nutritional foods and drinks (increasing the risk of essential nutrient deficiencies), or they provide excess calories (increasing the risk of obesity).
But very importantly - as leading US obesity expert Professor Robert Lustig MD explains in a brief interview for CBS - It isn't just about the calories
  • Increasing evidence suggests that the simple sugar fructose (which makes up around half of both sugar and high-fructose corn syrup) can be both ‘addictive’ and toxic when consumed in excess. (Fructose found naturally in whole fruits and vegetables does not appear to cause the same problems, as the fibre and other nutrients have protective effects).
  • If any substance is addictive, then ‘freedom of individual choice’ really does not apply. If that substance is also harmful, then any such ‘freedom of choice’ for the individual needs to be balanced against the costs that it inflicts on society as a whole (as well as on those who ‘choose’ to consume it). In particular, policies to reduce consumption – and to protect children in particular – are needed.

In the US, similar calls for a tax on sugar were made last year by Professor Lustig and colleagues, writing in the Journal ‘Nature’.

Any such proposals are of course always met by powerful lobbying by the food and drinks industry - and as the Sustain report points out, the enormous scale of their advertising and marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks outweighs any public health messages aimed at encouraging healthy food choices by a factor of 100 to 1.  

With that kind of imbalance, it it any wonder that diet-related problems just keep getting worse?


Professor Robert Lustig spoke in the UK for the first time in March 2013 at two special events organised by FAB Research.

As a specialist in neuro-endocrinology (the study of hormones and brain function) Robert Lustig has spent the past sixteen years treating childhood obesity and investigating the effects of sugar on the central nervous system and metabolism.  His book Fat Chance: The Bitter Truth About Sugar was published in the UK at the start of 2013, and you can watch a short interview with him at the FAB YouTube channel here.

Associate members of FAB can watch full versions of Robert Lustig’s presentations as well as other presentations made by FAB’s expert speakers over both days by following the links in the members' area. If you’re not already a member, find out how to join FAB Research, by following this link to the membership page.

In his book, he explains in detail the damage caused by sugary foods and drinks – arguing that fructose (too much) and dietary fibre (not enough) are the most important contributors to the epidemic of obesity and related diseases via their effects on insulin and other hormones.

He also explains why current advice to 'eat less and exercise more' misses the point and simply doesn't work unless sugary foods and drinks are avoided, because fructose bypasses the normal mechanisms that help us to regulate our appetite.

The serious health risks from excessive consumption of refined sugar were first highlighted 40 years ago by the pioneering British scientist John Yudkin in his book ‘Pure White and Deadly’.  

His scholarly work has stood the test of time, and the evidence against sugar has continued to mount, as highlighted very recently in the British Medical Journal: see ‘Science Souring on Sugar’

But over that 40 years, public health advice has instead blamed ‘dietary fats’ - and recommended ‘low-fat’ diets for weight loss and heart health - which are almost always high in sugar and other refined carbohydrates.

Meanwhile, rates of obesity and Type 2 diabetes have continued to rise dramatically, along with the ‘metabolic syndrome’ that underlies not only these conditions but also heart disease, stroke and many other chronic health conditions. All are now occurring at younger and younger ages.

In addition to its damaging effects on physical health, excessive sugar consumption has also been linked with a wide range of mental health problems, most notably addictive disorders (including some forms of eating disorder), antisocial behaviour, depression and Alzheimer’s disease.  Research in these areas remains more limited, but the existing evidence is already enough to merit serious concern – particularly given that refined sugar has no nutritional benefits. 

Read Sustain's Children's Future Fund report for full details of their carefully researched proposals.