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22nd Nov 2019

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Warning over Europe's sugar-guzzling habits

  • Campaigners say a healthy lifestyle should not include a single sugary drink (Photo: Leo Hidalgo)

Benelux has a drinking problem. The Netherlands and Belgium are in the top 10 biggest guzzlers of sugary drinks in the world. Germany is not far behind.

The data comes from Dr Benoit Arsenault, who has produced a “barometer” to monitor the consumption of sugary drinks in 80 countries.

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  • Benoit Arsenault has produced a “barometer” to monitor the consumption of sugary drinks (Photo: Benoit Arsenault)

His study reveals a south-north divide in Europe. The Netherlands gets through 93 litres of sugary beverages per person every year – seventh in the world rankings. Belgium (91.4 litres) is in ninth place globally and Germany (83.8 litres) in 12th.

Down south, the story is very different. The biggest decreases in sugary-drink intake in the world between 2010 and 2015 were seen in Portugal (down 19 percent), followed by Greece (17.1 percent), Croatia (17 percent) and Italy (14.6 percent). Across the board, these countries drink less than their northern European counterparts

Evidence is growing that consumption of sugary drinks is linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes, an illness that can cause blindness, kidney failure and cardiovascular disease. Diabetes is increasingly common. The World Health Organisation estimates 60 million people live with illness in Europe.

It's easy to see why EU countries have begun taxing sugary drinks. France and Hungary recently introduced levies, and the UK has a law in the pipeline.

“If you only looked at the prevalence of the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), Western countries and Latin American countries are the worst in the world,” Dr Arsenault tells EUobserver.

But overall, Europe's top three are a long way behind the world's worst offenders – Mexico (146.5 litres), Chile (143.8 litres) and the US (125.9 litres).

And the trends in consumption between 2010 and 2015 also seem kinder to Europe.

“Pretty much every country in the West has seen a decline in consumption,” he says.

Obesity epidemic

However, there has been little change in the rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, despite this fall in consumption.

Dr Arsenault dismisses any suggestion that this finding throws into doubt the link between sugary drinks and what he terms the obesity epidemic.

“The evidence is absolutely clear that, in an experimental setting, when individuals consume a lot of sugar-sweetened beverages it increases their liver fat content, increases their abdominal fat content, influences in a bad way their lipid and deteriorates their insulin sensitivity,” he says, pointing out that all of these are factors linked to obesity and type 2 diabetes.

And he argues that the drinks are one of the best ways to track unhealthy lifestyles because the people who consume sugary drinks often have other bad habits.

“It's one of the best markers out there to explain this global phenomenon of unhealthy eating, and it's fairly easy to monitor compared with other factors like consumption of ultra-processed foods,” he says.

He carried out the research for the European Healthy Lifestyle Alliance (EHLA), a campaign group based in Brussels.

EHLA boss Jean-Claude Coubard says the barometer should be used as "a tool for education and information".

"Consumption of SSBs is simply too high. Even if it has declined in the West, the rate is still too high,” he told this website.

SSBs include standard sweetened soft drinks, energy drinks, juice drinks and iced tea. The definition does not factor in sweetened coffee and tea sold in coffee-shop chains.

Coubard suggests that people who want a healthy lifestyle should simply stop drinking any sugary beverages.

Both Coubard and Dr Arsenault stress that sugary drinks are just one factor out of many that contribute to obesity and diabetes, but they argue that anything that increases awareness is a good thing.

Dr Arsenault presented his research to the European Atherosclerosis Society in Innsbruck on Tuesday (31 May). Atherosclerosis is another illness with links to obesity. He hopes to generate enough interest for scientific papers and further research into the statistics.

Taxes 'are not enough'

His study relied on data gathered by market research firm Euromonitor, which has teams based in 80 countries who rely not only on industry and government data, but also perform their own checks on stores in bars, restaurants and shops.

The data throws up some oddities. For example, Denmark is the only country in Western Europe where consumption of sugary drinks actually increased between 2010 and 2015. Danes now drink 4.5 litres more each year than they used to.

And Austrians, it seems, cannot get enough of energy drinks. They are the biggest consumers in the world, with each citizen getting through 9.6 litres a year. The UK (8.3 litres) is next, followed by Switzerland (6.7 litres).

Causal links are always difficult to prove, and Dr Arsenault's research was not focused on the causes of this phenomenon. But it is not difficult to surmise that advertising could play some part in Austria's addiction to energy drinks. It is, after all, the home of Red Bull.

“I don't think that Austrians have a particular craving for energy drinks more than British or Canadians, so I think we have to look at marketing to explain this,” Dr Arsenault says.

It is also easy to speculate that Denmark's increase in consumption can be explained by the government's decision to scrap its tax on sugary drinks in 2013. Rather than popping across the bridge to Sweden, Danes can now buy cheap sugary drinks on their own turf.

For policy makers in the EU and beyond, the study gives no easy answers. Instead, what emerges is a complex picture where consumption, bad habits and illness mix in disparate ways.

Dr Arsenault is clear that policy makers “must look beyond liquid calories” if they want to combat obesity. Jean-Claude Coubard agrees. “Taxes alone are not enough,” he says.

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