A tax on sugary drinks, proposed by Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan in his recent budget speech, is a step towards making South Africa a healthier nation and is to be welcomed, says the Principal Officer of Resolution Health Medical Scheme (Resolution Health), Mark Arnold.
“With concerns growing over the obesity rate in South Africa, and many associated non-communicable lifestyle diseases on the rise, the notion of a tax on sugary drinks is a welcome development,” Arnold states.
“Resolution Health sincerely hopes that South Africans will have cause to think twice before buying sugary beverages, which are calorie-laden but have become a part of many people’s daily diet. These drinks should be enjoyed in moderation and as part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle, as their frequent use only exacerbates the problem of obesity.”
The proposed tax, to be introduced from 1 April 2017, will be levied on sugar-sweetened beverages such as soft drinks, fruit juices, sports/energy drinks, and vitamin waters, sweetened ice tea, lemonade, cordials and squashes.
This comes after a recent study, undertaken by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, found that 70% of South African women and 40% of South African men were overweight or obese.
Dr Jacques Snyman, director of product development at Agility Global Health Solutions [Africa], administrators to Resolution Health, explains that regular consumption of sugary drinks can have significant ramifications for our waistlines and our health. “It is very easy to gulp down a lot of sugar in a drink, very quickly, almost without realising that this accounts for a large proportion of your recommended daily calorie intake. These drinks have also become so accepted in South African culture that many people are drinking them far more often than is healthy.”
In recent years, flavoured waters and mass produced iced teas have grown considerably in popularity in the South African market. While these may initially appear to be healthier alternatives to sugar-laden fizzy drinks, the nutritional information of such products often tell another story. Dr Snyman says that many people erroneously assume that flavoured waters have much the same health benefits as drinking still, sparkling or ordinary tap water.
“We are often told that adults should drink around two litres of water per day to stay adequately hydrated and help cleanse the body of impurities,” Dr Snyman says. “Flavoured water, however, is no substitute for pure water as it usually contains flavouring chemicals and plenty of sugar. In short, ‘flavoured water’ is usually no more than a clever marketing trick to promote fizzy drinks, which have had bad press in recent years as they have been linked to obesity.”
“Sugar-free fizzy drinks also have their drawbacks, with some studies suggesting that they might, perversely, stimulate cravings for calorie-rich foods.”
Energy drinks should also be consumed only in moderation, with an understanding of the calories and caffeine they contain. “As well as being addictive, the caffeine in energy drinks can leave you feeling shaky and anxious. Also, after the ‘rush’ that caffeine and sugar induce, you will often experience a corresponding ‘crash’, characterised by feelings of lethargy,” Dr Snyman observes.
Pure fruit juices may sound like a healthy alternative to the above, but even these are packed with sugars. “The difference between eating whole fruit and drinking fruit juice is that fruit juice is far more concentrated. You might be drinking the calories of several servings of fruit without realising it.” Dr Snyman adds that the fibre in whole fruit, which is generally removed from fruit juice, also helps the body to absorb fruit sugar more gradually.
Dr Snyman says there are healthier alternatives to these drinks that are just as delicious and satisfying as their calorie-laden counterparts. Plain cold water can be enhanced with slices of citrus fruit, cucumber or herbs, such as mint or lemon verbena.
Lemon juice in water, whether hot or cold, is refreshing and mildly energising. When you are in need of a more substantial energiser, try unsweetened green tea. Instead of fruit juice, try making your own smoothies by blending whole fruit with ice and unsweetened yogurt.
“I believe it is important for the general public to be more aware of what they are drinking and make informed decisions based on this information. A little of what you fancy does you good, they say, but many South Africans are drinking these daily without being cognisant of the potential health consequences. It is hoped that the introduction of a sugary drink tax would serve as a reminder that these should only be enjoyed occasionally,” Dr Snyman concludes.