By 2050, 90% of British children are predicted to be obese. Will this be a chant we hear in a school playground?…
“Urgh, you’re soo healthy! I bet you can still see your belly-button!”
Despite better labelling of foods, and several campaigns aimed at educating people to make the healthy choice, the number of people who are overweight or obese has tripled over the last 20 years to 60%, and is still increasing. It is now becoming culturally acceptable to be as overweight as one chooses, and anybody notable who attempts to challenge this position – such as Jamie Oliver and his ‘healthy school dinners‘ campaign (which resulted in some children refusing to eat the healthier food in the canteen as their parents shoved burgers and chips through school railings) – risk been hounded as an ‘intolerant snob‘ by sections of the media and public alike, and being martyred for their efforts.
Culturally, some of this is a warranted blow-back from the equally detrimental ‘size zero’ marketing from the insidious fashion industry. Nonetheless, it is often said in defence of libertarianism – and more often in defence of ‘the free market’ of junk food industries – that the government has no right to attempt to alter our eating habits, however excessive and detrimental.
A Super-Size McProblem
Currently, the Department of Health predicts that obesity-related health problems cost the NHS over £4 billion a year, and the wider economy £16 billion. However if current trends continue, by 2050 obesity healthcare could swallow around £50 billion a year – or half the NHS budget, effectively destroying it. Is our cheap, daily consumption of such products as Dairy Milk, Walkers Crisps, the Big Mac, and Coca-Cola really worth that?
Alongside, reducing our country’s ‘obesogenic’ culture for financial reasons, there are other, perhaps more subtle reasons afoot;
- Obesity is not only considered physically undesirable, but has been demonstrated on average to lead to a shorter and less happier life when compared to a more active person.
- We have, and in the era of global warming, resource depletion and peak oil continue to, cut down rainforests to plant sugar-cane, palm oil, and other nutritionally superfluous cash crops. These processes could be reversed, leading to huge ecological, cultural and economic gains – both from where we import our food from and for local British farmers.
- As waistlines bulge, or zig-zag up and down – the same problem affects the land and resources we globally dedicate to clothing. Though our throwaway culture is in part perpetuated by the fashion industry’s illusion of seasonal (or sometimes even weekly) trends, it is in a situation which is exacerbated by the need to keep buying new clothes ‘because the old pair doesn’t fit any more’.
- For some, excessive consumption doesn’t always add weight. However ‘obesogenic’ foodstuffs are often overly-processed and refined, which by and large contain more toxins and pollution, and less antioxidants and natural vitamins and minerals than their unprocessed counter-parts. This can potentially lead to a visually disguised, lower overall health.
- Many of the rising personal and mental problems in our society – such as depression, food allergies, OCD, hyperactivity and anxiety to name but a few – often have their roots in a bad diet.
- Large parts of the world are starving, while the developed world is steadily becoming more and more obese; if none of the above appeal as good reasons, this moral impetus might.
However, I think this problem could be alleviated…
A ‘No-Fads’ Solution
Legislation has often been used to restrict the harmful consumption of alcohol and tobacco. Finland’s recent u-turn on lower alcohol taxes (as anti-social behaviour increased) proved how effective this type of taxation can be. Taiwan is currently considering a junk food tax, while Iceland was looking to impose a 14% Sugar Tax earlier this year (although ironically, this has been cancelled amid fears of turbulence within their already sick economy.)
Even in 1733, Britain had it’s Molasses Act (taxing non-Empire sugars). Though any serious talk nowadays of such a measure is quietly dismissed as being ‘anti-competitive’ and ‘anti-democratic’ – even though a recent poll suggests three quarters of the UK population would be in favour of such action. While to those who feel this would unduly affect those worst off in society, the poll indicated that the ‘nanny state’ solution would be favoured by citizens from lower socio-economic groups, who felt they had ‘less control over their health’.
No doubt there would be some initial uproar – as there is when alcohol and tobacco duty increases; however, it need not be considered so sacrilegious. When looking at alcohol and tobacco, it seems we have a government with misplaced priorities. One only need to consider the disproportionate hysteria over cannabis, while far more scientifically dangerous drugs like alcohol are condoned and even promoted – exposing how culturally-received norms often blindly overrule statistics and science.
Leading US health experts such as Dr Kelly Brownell of Yale University and ex-New York City Health Commissioner, Thomas Frieden have also been lobbying for a similar tax in the US, citing in a joint paper;
‘taxes could substantially reduce consumption of sugared beverages, cut caloric intake and help prevent obesity and diabetes.’
“It is difficult to imagine producing behaviour change of this magnitude through education alone, even if government devoted massive resources to the task.”
A ‘Gooditive’ Partnership
Taxes aside, apart from banning fizzy drinks machines in schools, so far our government has shied away from any meaningful decisions on such matters. Instead, they’ve opted for ‘working in partnership‘ with the multi-billion pound food industry. Does this include the promotion by the European Snack Association that ‘a bag of crisps is healthier than an apple’? Or Vimto’s ‘purple drink’ school poetry competition? OR perhaps the Dairy Council’s extraordinary ‘fact-sheet’ citing additives as ‘gooditives‘?
So what ‘gooditives’ has the benevolent food industry been increasing in our diet anyway? – Along with the infamous salt and fats, one of the most obvious is sugar. For the vast majority of our evolution, humans have not been digesting any sugars except seasonal fruits and perhaps the occasional honey. So it’s no great surprise that coupled with our recently-developed sedentary lifestyle, refined sugar is perhaps the main dietary culprit behind our obesity epidemic. This was shown most obviously by the now infamous Atkins diet which relied upon cutting down your carbohydrates intake and replacing it with protein and fats.
Although controversial, and incredibly dangerous over long-term, this diet does achieve its aims of dramatic and immediate weight loss, as ill-advised as it is. This is partly because although your body does absorb more fat than you need each day, a good proportion of it is used for essential metabolic processes such as cellular repair. The remainder is stored – or burnt for energy if carbohydrates aren’t readily available.
On the other-hand, your body can quickly absorb almost unlimited quantities of carbohydrates each day. This can easily lead to dangerous blood sugar spikes – especially via liquid sugars such as fizzy drinks and alcohol – which your body reacts to by increasing your metabolic rate and…. converting sugars into fats. Furthermore, the more often your body has to do this, the more likely you are to develop Type II diabetes. In the last decade alone, the UK has witnessed a doubling of Type II diabetes, to more than 4% of the entire population.
With all this in mind, what’s the genius behind most of the industry’s new miracle ‘low-fat’ products one should ask?
Taking out the fats and replacing it with sugars!
What ‘Diet Sugar’?
Nowadays, sugar is sometimes disguised as glucose-fructose syrup, corn syrup, or hydrolysed corn starch. These bland tasting sugars were introduced into our palates in the 1970s as a cheap, versatile product to use up the excess US maize harvests. Sugar (sucrose), is a polymer of glucose and fructose, which your body has to break down before metabolisation. The syrup is basically already digested for you, making it much sweeter than sugar, and thus more addictive. Furthermore, although this product is rife within children’s food, scientists have concerns over if it can be metabolised properly to make us ‘feel full‘, potentially leading to further obesity problems.
Another industry-popular ‘gooditive’ is the vast array of sweeteners often unnecessarily added to our food products. One of particular note is Aspartame (present in many diet drinks). This was subject to a 10-year controversy before FDA approval in the US, until the infamous Monsanto bought the rights to the chemical. Since then, there has been numerous scientific studies which have linked it to a plethora of health problems (incidentally, I always avoid it as it gives me a bad headache). But whether or not it’s safe aside, why do we need a ‘fake’ sweet taste in our mouth? – Doesn’t this just encourage people to develop a sweet tooth and augment a vicious circle of which the only beneficiaries are the aforementioned companies manufacturing these foods?
This all comes on the back of reports indicating that the industry-favoured, intensively-farmed foodstuffs often contain worrying levels of pesticide toxicity, while our government has buried scientific warnings over GM crops – setting the scene for the floodgates to open. So where exactly does the consumer’s health fit into this ‘partnership’?
A Sporting Chance
Many health experts have already called for a tax upon sugar to control obesity, others a more general ‘junk food‘ tax. Personally, I feel there may be problems with defining what exactly is ‘junk food’? – Does the middle-class dark chocolate count? Or salted cashews? Or vegetable samosas? It’s perhaps better to tax key harmful ingredients. I think the most progressive approach would be a point-of-sale tax – split into several ‘percentage bands’ (perhaps 10%, 20%, 30% additional VAT) defined by the inclusive levels of refined sugars, glucose-fructose syrups, sweeteners, added salts and saturated fats, and perhaps white flour too.
Such a tax would force food producers to reassess the ingredients within their products and drive them to reduce levels of harmful ingredients in order to maintain a competitive advantage. Luxuries would still remain a luxury, but people would pay the real costs upfront.
The administration and processing of such an endeavour would be time-consuming, but the benefits would far outweigh the task of categorising products. The funds raised from a tax upon unhealthy food could be ring-fenced for our NHS (as tobacco duty was in 1999) – money which is desperately needed already, let alone in the coming decades when obesity levels start to become a bigger drain – which needs to be accounted for.
Even better, some of the funds could also be funnelled into the just as vital, preventative method; increasing the availability and uptake of sport and other physical exertion. While a reduction in junk food consumption would mean that individuals would find exercising physically easier, it seems there is also a national shortage of locally-available and affordable sports facilities, gyms, swimming pools and urban green spaces – which is only fanning our country’s ‘declining participation in sport‘. The huge amounts of cash raised could make such ventures more profuse and affordable.
So let’s not wait until we’re crushed under the burgeoning weight of this problem, and if managed properly, a tax could perhaps save citizens time, pollution, and even money in the long run. Not many taxes could claim that. It’s time for the government to get it’s act together, put the responsible long-term thinking hat on, and do its duty.