Why Sugar Taxes are Pointless (and Ableist)

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Photo by Felix Zhao on Unsplash

Because of sugar taxes in the UK, A.G. Barr, creator of the iconic Scottish pop Irn-Bru has made the unfortunate choice to add artificial sweeteners to their non-diet soda.

Ah, but less sugar is good? For me, and thousands of other people, the choice to add aspartame to Irn-Bru means that the pop is now permanently off limits. In fact, it has always been common in the UK to add aspartame to non-diet soda. Not so much in the US, but the push for sugar tax may lead to it.

But Aspartame is Safe! It Being Dangerous is a Conspiracy Theory!

Aspartame, the most commonly-used artificial sweetener, is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA. However, there has been a lot of talk about how aspartame causes cancer, Alzheimer’s, and an entire laundry list of…if you believe them aspartame causes everything.

Which, of course, leads to the backlash of anyone who thinks aspartame causes any health problems whatsoever is obviously crazy.

Aspartame is made from two naturally occurring amino acids, aspartic acid and phenylalanine. It also produces methanol when it is broken down.

The evidence is that aspartame is safe for most people.

It is not safe for everyone.

First of all, phenylalanine is dangerous to people who have phenylketonuria. This is a rare genetic disorder in which the person is unable to break down phenylalanine, causing it to build up in the body. PKU, as it’s generally called, causes a range of symptoms that include seizures, eczema, hyperactivity and delayed development. It also lightens the person’s skin and eyes as phenylanine is a precursor to melanin. People with PKU absolutely cannot have anything containing aspartame.

Aspartame also has a minor effect on brain chemistry. Specifically, it inhibits serotonin and dopamine. For most people, this is not a big deal. It’s a tiny amount.

For people who are sensitive to aspartame, it is a big deal. Aspartame can cause headaches and dizziness, and is a common migraine trigger. Migraines are considered a disability because a migraine headache is so severe it can incapacitate somebody from normal life, potentially for days.

Aspartame being generally considered safe for most people does not prevent it from being dangerous for some. After all, peanuts are also safe for most people…but can kill those allergic to them.

Ah, But Obesity

The common reason for sugar taxes is to reduce high levels of obesity. Being significantly overweight can cause health problems, but it is seldom caused by soda consumption. (Furthermore, people have different natural weights and don’t get me started on BMI).

The idea behind sugar taxes is to make regular soda more expensive than diet soda, so people will opt for the latter.

First of all, this constitutes a “tax” on anyone who wants soda (or candy if it gets applied to that) but can’t have artificial sweeteners.

But there’s another reason why sugar taxes don’t work:

Diet soda doesn’t help you lose weight. Especially if you aren’t making other changes.

Artificially sweetened drinks mess up your gut balance; your body expects sugar, doesn’t get it, and does weird stuff.

So, sugar taxes penalize people with disabilities, whilst not actually incentivizing healthy behaviors (unless, of course, they’re applied to all soft drinks, which has been done).

I Want to Lose Weight

First of all, ask whether you really do or whether society is telling you you do.

The best thing to do with soda for weight loss is just not drink it at all, diet or regular. I quit regular soda consumption ten years ago and do believe it was beneficial to my health. (Oh and watch out for those flavored waters. A lot of those have aspartame or sugar in them as well).

The ultimate thing though is: Sugar taxes are unlikely to improve health and are at their core ableist against people with PKU and people with migraines triggered by artificial sweeteners.

And if they lead to companies getting around them by putting aspartame in the regular soda, they prevent us from drinking soda altogether. Even as a treat.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades. https://www.jenniferrpovey.com/

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