How will milk drinks be affected by UK sugar tax?

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Chocolate milk: Nutritional powerhouse or sugary treat? Pic: iStock/Mizina
Chocolate milk: Nutritional powerhouse or sugary treat? Pic: iStock/Mizina

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Milk-based drinks are to be excluded from the UK sugar tax, given their nutritional value. And yet some milk-based drinks contain considerable amounts of added sugar. So how can the levy distinguish between the two?  

At the heart of the UK’s tax on sugar-sweetened beverages​ is the need to address childhood obesity. But milk is recognized as a rich nutritional source for children, and so the UK sugar tax is seeking to ensure that such nutritious milk-based drinks are not affected by the levy.  

“Milk and milk-products are a source of protein, calcium, potassium, phosphorus and iodine, as well as the vitamins B2 and B12,” ​observes the consultation documents for the levy. “It is essential for children’s health that they consume the required amounts of these nutrients as part of a balanced diet.

“Milk and other dairy products feature on Public Health England’s official ‘Eat Well’ plate of foods that should be consumed regularly. Children between the ages of one and three years need to have around 350mg of calcium a day. A 300ml serving of milk (just over half a pint) would provide this.”

Milk threshold

A threshold on milk content for exempt beverages is the government’s answer to the issue.

Given the nutrition value of milk, pre-packaged milk-based drinks are to be excluded from the levy – providing they are sufficiently high in milk to deliver the nutritional benefits.

The government is currently consulting on its proposals for the levy. It suggests that a threshold on milk content should be applied to drinks, to ensure that only drinks high in nutritional value are exempt from the levy.

“As such we intend that only pre-packaged drinks containing at least 75% milk would be outside the scope of the levy. Where a drink contains less than 75% milk and also contains added sugar, with a total sugar content of 5g/100ml or more, then it will be subject to the levy.”

The government is now consulting on whether this 75% threshold is appropriate to ensure that only nutrient-rich milk drinks are exempt from the levy.

The soft drinks levy will be applied to producers and importers of pre-packaged drinks. Therefore, milk-based drinks which are made or served on the premises in cafes or restaurants will not be subject to the levy.

Flavoured milk: good or bad?

The NHS (National Health Service) advises: “Limit your intake of flavored milks, milkshakes and milk-based energy or malt drinks – these contain added sugar, which is bad for teeth.”

However, The Dairy Council, on its website, argues that flavored milk is a better option for children than other sugary soft drinks.

“In comparison with plain milks, flavored milks tend to have slightly higher sugar content, however studies have suggested that they are still a favorable option for children and teenagers as they provide a wide range of beneficial nutrients.

“One study has shown that children consuming flavored milk are not actually likely to have higher sugar or energy intakes as children consuming flavored milk would likely, consume fewer less healthy sweetened drinks.

“Flavored milk is also less likely to cause damage to teeth than sugary foods and drinks.”

Soy, almond and coconut milk

Plant milk drinks, such as soya, almond, rice or coconut milk, are primarily made from water and may have added sugar.

“We therefore propose that such drinks are potentially within the scope of the levy on the basis that their composition is similar to that of other water-based drinks in scope.”

However, the consultation adds that, in practice, many of these plant based drinks contain less than 5g sugar per 100ml and therefore would not be subject to a levy.

It also recognizes that plant drinks are consumed by people who are lactose and dairy intolerant, and products are sometimes fortified with calcium and vitamins.

“It is not our intention to capture medicinal products under the levy, and in the case where any added sugar lactose or dairy substitute product is licensed for a specific medicinal use, it will be exempt from the levy,” ​says the consultation.

The consultation, and details on how to respond, can be found here.

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