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Dietitians urge Ottawa to enact tax on sugary beverages

Bottles of Coca Cola are seen in a store display in New York in this February 9, 2010 file photo.

LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS

The Dietitians of Canada are calling for a tax of up to 20 per cent to be placed on pop, chocolate milk and other sugar-sweetened beverages that are contributing to the country's obesity problem.

The new position statement, released on Tuesday, coincides with a broader global movement to reduce sugar consumption. The World Health Organization recently adopted new recommendations suggesting that no more than 5 per cent of daily calories come from "free" sugars – those added to foods or beverages and those naturally occurring in honey, syrups and fruit juice. The group says adolescents get as much as 8 per cent of their daily calories from sugar-sweetened beverages.

The Dietitians of Canada propose a sugar tax to be added to items such as pop, energy drinks and sweetened milk, but not fruit juice.

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Kate Comeau, a spokeswoman for the group, said the tax will not solve the problem of rising obesity and chronic disease rates in Canada. But it, along with broader education efforts and a push to reduce the marketing of junk food, could help push consumers in the right direction.

If such a tax was adopted, governments would have to monitor drinking patterns in case the tax pushes consumers to drink more fruit juice. While it contains more vitamins than pop, fruit juice can also be a significant source of calories.

The move is being endorsed by the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Childhood Obesity Foundation, the Chronic Disease Prevention Alliance of Canada, the Quebec Coalition on Weight-Related Problems and the B.C. Healthy Living Alliance.

There has been mounting pressure on the federal government to help lower sugar consumption in Canada. One of the biggest sticking points is that Canada had no set target for maximum daily sugar consumption, which made it difficult for consumers to know how much they were getting.

Last year, the former Conservative government unveiled new food labels that would include a "per cent daily value" of sugar, based on a daily consumption of 100 grams. But many criticized the changes because they failed to distinguish "free" sugars from the naturally occurring ones found, say, in milk, which is a crucial distinction.

And the labels made some very sugary items appear healthier than they are. For instance, a can of pop would amount to 42 per cent of an individual's daily sugar allotment. But, according to the World Health Organization, that same can far exceeds its recommendation for maximum free-sugar consumption, which is 25 grams a day for the average adult.

During the federal election campaign, the Liberal Party promised to improve food labels to help Canadians identify added sugars, but it's not clear what they would look like.

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About the Author

Carly Weeks has been a journalist with The Globe and Mail since 2007.  She has reported on everything from federal politics to the high levels of sodium in the Canadian diet. More

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