Sugary drinks are under the magnifying glass once again.
Earlier this week, Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., introduced a bill in the House of Representatives that would require a national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.
The Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Tax Act, or the SWEET Act, would charge a penny per teaspoon of sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or other caloric sweeteners. The tax would be paid by manufacturers, producers or importers of these products.
Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages promotes excess calorie intake with little to no nutritional value, according to the California Department of Public Health. It is estimated that adults who drink one or more sugar-sweetened beverage per day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight than those who drink less.
In Merced, a county where 3 out of 4 adults is overweight, health officials have been battling the intake of sugary drinks for several years.
Kathleen Grassi, director at the Merced County Department of Public Health said the department has worked alongside different organizations in implementing sugary beverage policies that provide guidelines for people to make healthier choices. County and city departments have adopted beverage standards to lead by example and “walk the walk,” Grassi said.
Earlier this year, the Livingston Police Department, Department of Public Works and City Hall employees adopted a healthy beverages policy that nixed sugary drinks from meetings, cafeterias and vending machines. School districts, First 5 Merced County and the Merced County Food Bank, among other organizations, have also taken action in promoting drinks with less sugar.
“The goal is to help people understand that obesity is an epidemic in our country and how much sugary drinks contribute to that problem,” Grassi said.
Jaci Westbrook, a nutrition education program manager with the UC Cooperative Extension in Merced County, said a lot of outreach addressing healthy drink options has been done in schools, specifically with elementary students.
“We’ve been helping children understand how much sugar is in their drinks through the Rethink Your Drink campaign” Westbrook said. “We don’t tell them ‘you can’t ever drink this,’ but instead we’re trying to enable them to make smarter choices. The main thing we try to teach them is that these (sugary) drinks are not a replacement for water.”
The Rethink Your Drink campaign urges families to make healthy drink choices by choosing water and other healthy alternatives instead of sugar-sweetened drinks such as soda, sports drinks and energy drinks.
A big part of the education process is training parents to read nutrition labels correctly, Westbrook said.
“In general, people don’t realize how much added sugar there is to a lot of the stuff we consume, and it’s because nutrition labels are not always easy to read,” she said.
Westbrook said she believes nutritional education programs do make a difference. She has seen students take a stand against drinks that are not as healthy for them and choose water or infused water, a healthy and tasty alternative, she said.
Westbrook said although she’s unsure about the direction of the SWEET Act, she hopes it will help create some positive noise. “Anything that can be used to better educate our residents is beneficial,” Westbrook said.
Beverage products exempt from the proposed tax include milk, 100-percent fruit juice, oral nutritional therapy products (such as Pedialyte), infant formula and alcoholic beverages.
According to the Act’s text, tax revenue would be used to fund research, prevention and the treatment of diseases related to consumption of sweetened beverages.