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Lawmakers create a "fat tax" for non-diet sodas

The Governor of New York, David Paterson, plans to unveil Tuesday a budget that includes an "obesity tax" of about 15% on all drinks that aren't low-calorie.

As the New York Daily News puts it, under the proposed tax a Diet Coke might cost $1, while an identical serving of regular Coke would be charged at $1.15. That's before the bottle deposit, which in New York State is 5¢ per container. Milk, even the whole-fat version, would not be taxed at that heightened rate, and water would be exempt, too.

In response, a spokesperson from the American Academy of Pediatrics praised the notion, claiming that jacking the price of such "liquid candy" would make kids healthier. Notice that the group didn't cite any proof that the 15¢ rise would dissuade anyone from buying a drink, because no such proof exists.

Now that manufacturers have filtered trans fats out of many foods, they are replacing partially hydrogenated oils with other types. Which of these should you be avoiding, too?

  • Soybean oil
  • Palm oil
  • Corn oil

You're stuck in a breakfast meeting and starving. Which would be the lowest-calorie choice from the tray of baked goodies?

  • Blueberry muffin
  • Butter croissant
  • Cinnamon chip scone

You need potassium to keep your metabolism revved and muscles strong. Which of these offers the most?

  • One medium baked sweet potato
  • One cup of fat-free yogurt
  • One medium banana

If you must have chips, which of these is the most nutritious?

  • Banana chips
  • Veggie chips
  • Potato chips

Calcium is key to building bones, but which of these dairy foods is NOT a good source?

  • Cottage cheese
  • Yogurt smoothie
  • Fat-free milk

Which salty snack contains the most sodium?

  • One sourdough pretzel
  • 17 salt-and-vinegar potato chips
  • A quarter cup of salted peanuts

Which of these salad toppings will set you back the most calories?

  • Roasted almonds
  • Butter-garlic croutons
  • Crispy chicken

Drinking Vitamin Water is a good substitute for taking a daily multivitamin.

  • True
  • False

Science may not bear out the claim that sugary sodas are necessarily more destructive than ones sweetened with chemicals, by the way -- they may just be destructive in a different way. In February, a Perdue University study showed that consumers who drink diet sodas may, in fact, gain more weight than those who stick to the non-diet ones sweetened with the industry standby, high fructose corn syrup.

The implication, I guess, is that Diet Coke is as healthy as water. That's ludicrous. The chemicals used in diet sodas, so the study suggests, changes your metabolism in a way that makes you more susceptible to getting fat. Or so that's the theory. We haven't lived with artificial sweeteners long enough to truly determine their effect over lifetimes and generations.

This isn't the first time that a local government has tried to pay for shortfalls by taxing sweet things. Last winter, San Francisco tried to place taxes on soft drinks made with high fructose corn syrup (and not ones made with sugar) in an effort to pay for things that might battle obesity, like bike paths and nutrition education. The Center for Science in the Public Interest came out against the tax, which was geared toward attacking corn syrup and left sugar alone, a major reason it never gained traction. Gov. Paterson's proposed tax doesn't put corn syrup in the bulls eye, although because of its ubiquity in sugary drinks, it's still the essential target.

There's little doubt that high fructose corn syrup is a cheap, industrial-grade ingredient that, somehow, Americans have been coddled into accepting in nearly everything they eat. From soda to bread to ketchup to steak sauce, you'll find the stuff has replaced more unprocessed ingredients, like sugar, as manufacturers try to cut costs as deeply as possible. Just try to purchase items without the stuff, and you'll be spending a lot of time reading labels in the grocery store aisle.

If you could track the rise of American obesity, you'd find that our waist sizes and diabetes rates grew almost precisely with the growing use of high fructose corn syrup, which started finding its way into nearly everything within the past 20 years.

That hasn't stopped the high fructose corn syrup industry from launching some pretty snide propaganda commercials aimed at shutting down anyone with complaints about its deleterious effects. The fact is that sweeteners in general aren't ideal. Recent studies indicate that sugar has the same effects on cravings as illicit drugs.

But taxing sugar drinks? I strongly doubt the new tax would be enough to keep anyone from drinking the stuff. A price bump like that wouldn't be distinguishable from slight inflation. I doubt most people would notice much. If government officials have reason to believe that high fructose corn syrup is dangerous, then I wish they would launch a proper study and prove it once and for all, like it did for nicotine. If they can do that, then they can get away with a sin tax that's a lot more lucrative than 15%.

Besides, if our government thinks that corn syrup is so bad for us -- so bad for us that it wants to tax us for eating it -- why is it subsidizing its manufacture through the corn industry? That floods the market with corn products and has resulted in sugar becoming something of a luxury ingredient. Taste a Coke made in Mexico, where real sugar is still used, and you'll notice a difference in flavor. It also takes about 75 gallons of water to produce just one pound of corn, and that inefficient ratio affects everyone -- or will eventually. If the government is so concerned about cleaning up our diets, it shouldn't take the fight to our wallets before it curtails the industry handouts that make corn syrup so prevalent to begin with.

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