'Fat tax' solutions ignore wider social factors driving junk food habits

| 16th August 2010

Unhealthy foods are cheaper than higher nutritional alternatives, according to research

Renewed calls for a tax on less nutritious foods do not take account of the importance of issues like education, advertising and social justice say campaigners

Calls for a so-called 'fat tax' on junk foods are back on the public agenda, following new research that shows healthy foods are more expensive than less nutritious alternatives.

The US study, published in the journal Food Policy, suggests that when we take into account the price of food items per calorie of energy they provide, highly nutritious foods are consistently more expensive than less nutritious foods. In addition, the price disparity between more and less nutritious foods appears to be growing.

The results support similar research into food prices in the UK which has also shown nutritious foods to be more expensive than alternatives. A study led by the University of Greenwich in 2008 compared prices of a number of common household shopping items and found that healthier alternatives to basic products were often not only more expensive, but also more expensive per unit of energy.

Economic factors

Explaining the results, co-author of the new research Dr. Pablo Monsivais of the University of Washington said costs of production pushed up the prices of some nutritious foods.

‘Most nutrients are found in foods that tend to have the highest proportion of water, meaning fresh produce, seafoods, lean meats and low fat dairy foods. These are all foods that require great care and energy in handling, shipping and storage,’ Monsivais said.

Professor Adam Drewnowski, who also co-authored the research, suggests government subsidies in both the US and UK may be partly responsible as they favour 'cheap calorie' crops like wheat, corn, soya and rice over fruit and vegetables.

He also points out the higher labour costs of hand picked fresh food.

‘By contrast, the food industry is using economies of scale and cheap ingredients - often imported from places with cheap labour costs like China. So the sad thing is that regular foods are becoming luxury items for most people’

Food campaign groups have expressed concern over the findings, claiming they support the view that healthy eating is moving beyond the reach of many low income families.

Jeanette Longfield, coordinator of the food and farming campaign group Sustain, says the study highlights the need for a new system of food delivery in the UK.

‘This new research doesn’t come as a great surprise. This has been a growing trend over a number of decades and the reasons are quite simple - good food goes off,’ she said.

‘People are looking for a techno-fix, but really the best solution is a network of local and sustainable suppliers that produce tasty, sustainable and nutritious food for local people.’

‘Fat tax’

Others argue a better solution may be a 'fat tax' on less nutritious or ‘junk’ foods as a means of encouraging consumers to shop more healthily, calls that Sustain has cautiously supported.

‘A food tax may be something we have to start looking at. We wouldn’t want a tax that is levied based on just nutritional value - we would also want it to incorporate other sustainability issues, for example, animal welfare, fair trade and environmental standards’ said Longfield.

However, retailers argue taxes will hit those on low-incomes hardest without addressing other key factors involved in encouraging healthy eating.

‘You don’t change people's behaviour by just clobbering people with extra charges’ said Richard Dodd, head of media and campaigns at the British Retail Consortium.

‘Forcing up shopping bills is not going to win people's hearts for one thing, and it will put extra pressure on household budgets.’

Traffic-light labelling

Dodd instead argues it is not cost that is preventing low-income families from achieving a healthy diet, but education.

He said: ‘Things like fresh fruit and vegetables are more affordable than they have ever been and also are frequently the focus of discounts and promotions.’

‘Retailers have also done an enormous amount on reformulation to make manufactured food healthier and to reduce fat, salt and sugar, and of course they have gone a long way on nutritional labelling which helps people to make healthier choices.’

While there have been improvements in nutritional labelling, the food industry continues to lobby against measures to introduce so-called ‘traffic light’ labelling on all food items to help consumers work out their daily intake of salt, sugar and fat.

Only this June, the NHS watchdog the National Institute for Clinical Health and Excellence (NICE) reiterated the need for traffic light labelling on all foods in a report that also called for restrictions on TV advertising for foods high in fats, salt and sugar.

However, the EU food industry lobby group, The Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), spent an estimated €1 billion lobbying against recent EU proposals to make food labelling compulsory.

Education and awareness

But improvements to food labelling and restrictions on advertising might not be effective on their own. Bridget Benelam, a nutrition scientist working for the British Nutrition Foundation, argues knowledge about food content is only part of the problem and that a lack of cooking skills in the UK is also largely to blame.

‘I think you can have a healthy diet on a low income if you are a smart shopper but it really does require cooking skills,’ she said.

‘There is a great deal of good work going on in schools now but I think we may have missed a generation in terms of getting those cooking skills across.’

Tackling social justice

But while addressing education will almost certainly have a role to play, many are now suggesting any attempts to encourage low-income families to eat healthier foods must aim deeper.

Professor Elizabeth Dowler of the University of Warwick has argued that any attempt to promote healthy heating must also try to tackle some of the social justice issues that lie behind consumer choices.

While accepting that taxation and education may both have a role to play in encouraging healthy eating, she argues that the issue of healthy eating must be viewed within the larger context of household expenditure.

‘The point is that food is a flexible item. It’s not just about how much money you have to spend on food, it's about how much money you have for everything. People will always have to prioritise fuel bills or else they get cut off, and they have to pay their rent. Food is something you can cut back on.’

Dowling has instead backed calls to tackle healthy eating through measures addressing inequalities in income such as an increase in the minimum wage. While recognising these measures are likely to require sustained government effort, she argues the results may in fact begin to pay for themselves.

‘People are finally becoming convinced of the link between diet and heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes, and all these things cost money,’ she said.

‘And it is not just in the NHS, but also in the number of people dying before they are 55 when they can still be working and paying tax, or people being incapacitated not contributing to society in the way they could.’

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