Public Health England’s recently released obesity report has recommended a sugar tax in the UK as part of the nation’s fight against childhood obesity, causing a stir amongst some powerful industry figures. The proposed tax would see a 10–20% increase on the price of ‘high-sugar’ foods and drinks, a term which is currently vague and, according to the report, needs to be clarified. Other suggestions include stricter regulation of high-sugar food advertising targeting children, crackdowns on ‘two-for-one’ promotional offers in supermarkets and convenience stores, and a gradual reduction of sugar content and portion sizes in foods across the board.
At The Chocolution, we believe a well-devised sugar tax would be an effective public health measure and are in favour of its implementation. However, a poorly formulated tax plan could have devastating effects on smaller chocolatiers and give even more of a market advantage to the big producers. As artisan chocolatiers, there are a few factors we feel must be taken into account before any sugar tax is considered.
Distinguish between artisan products and confectionery
It’s really important that any tax takes into account the overall nutritional value of individual foods and doesn’t lump them into broad categories. For example, there’s a world of difference between our artisan dark chocolate – which contains 70% cacao and uses only natural coconut palm sugar – and one of Britain’s most famous milk chocolate bars (we’ll let you guess which one), which contains 56% refined sugars and only 24% cacao.
The sugar content isn’t the only difference. As we’ve written in previous blog entries, artisan chocolatiers source the best quality cacao, mix it with only premium ingredients and prepare chocolate in a way that preserves the cacao’s proven health benefits. Using natural sugars - as opposed to highly refined white sugars - is also an important health advantage of artisan chocolates.
We’re concerned that under a broad sugar tax, artisan chocolates might be categorised as a ‘high sugar food’ and unfairly affected. It would be a travesty if products like ours, made specifically to be a nutritious and ethical alternative to mass-produced chocolates, were penalised by a policy designed to protect consumers’ health.
If a tax is to be implemented, there needs to be a clear distinction between artisan products and confectionery, so that customers will have more of an economic incentive to make the healthy choice. We would advocate a case-by-case assessment of which products should be taxed, or at the very least an exemption for handmade, organic and artisan products that are on the market as healthier alternatives to mass-produced food.
Don’t price the little guys out of the market
If artisan chocolate were to fall under a sugar tax, a flat 10% or 20% increase to the shelf price of chocolate could be disastrous for small chocolatiers, who have much higher overheads per unit than mass producers and run to very tight margins. Being taxed at the same rate as confectionery chocolate would be a much bigger blow for artisan producers than it would for the big industry players.
Think of it like this: a 20% tax on a £2 block of high sugar, low-cacao confectionery chocolate would raise its price to £2.40. The same tax on a £5 block of artisan chocolate – which due to its superior ingredients and the care taken in its production will always be more expensive – would push the price up to £6. Ironically, the differential caused by the tax could price consumers out of the artisan market and force them to revert back to cheaper chocolate, which is what contributed to the health problems in the first place.
One option could be a sliding scale of tax based on the amount of sugar in a product, so that white and milk chocolates with a higher sugar content would be taxed more. This would give big producers an incentive to lower the sugar content of their products and encourage consumers to opt for higher-cacao, lower-sugar chocolates, which are often more expensive as it stands.
Expose foods with ‘hidden sugar’ by taxing them
If we’re trying to look after out health, we might avoid certain foods we instinctively think of as sugary such as soft drinks, lollies, milk chocolate and ice cream, or only eat them on special occasions. The problem is that many of the foods we eat every day (and believe are healthy) are in fact laden just as laden with sugar as the ‘naughty stuff’. That makes it extremely difficult to make informed, healthy dietary choices from what’s available at the supermarket.
Some surprisingly sugary foods include:
· Low-fat or ‘diet’ foods. These have been all the rage over the past 20 years and we’re only now starting to realise how detrimental they’ve been to our health. In most cases the fat that’s removed is simply replaced with refined sugar to improve the taste.
· Breakfast cereals. Even cereals that don’t taste sweet can have staggeringly high amounts of sugar, often around the 30% mark. Have a look at the numbers in this comparison of breakfast cereals in the UK.
· Muesli/granola bars. Many of these have been marketed as healthy alternatives to chocolate bars, but with some containing up to 40% sugar their health claims should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Some of the foods listed above and many other modern-day staples, despite being marketed as ‘healthy’, contain more sugar per 100 grams than artisan chocolate. If there’s going to be a sugar tax then it is absolutely paramount that these ‘hidden sugar’ foods are included, both to improve consumer awareness and to encourage large food producers to change their ways.
Consumers will not stop eating chocolate, and nor should they. It is now widely accepted in the scientific community that cacao is an extremely nutritious food and that high-quality dark chocolate, eaten in sensible moderation, can have significant health benefits. We don’t need to stop people from eating chocolate; we need to guide people towards the right chocolate and help them understand how they should consume it.
A sugar tax, if implemented correctly, is a great idea and could be a key step towards revolutionising the food industry in the UK. However, as we’ve pointed out above, it’s vital that the system serves the purpose it is intended for and targets the food products that have caused the rise in obesity in the UK, not those that are part of the solution.
We encourage the British government to consider Public Health England’s proposals and develop a sugar taxation system that protects artisan food producers, forces mass producers to make healthier products and, most importantly, puts consumers first.
Viva la Chocolution!