Stop chewing the fat about the Fat Tax

By Clare Cheney

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Fat tax Nutrition

Rumours of a fat tax in the UK to tackle obesity, stirred up by the media on the strength (or weakness) of a throwaway remark by the Prime Minister, have been firmly kicked into touch.

So they should be! The Times which should have known better had a categorical headline: 'Tories plan strict quotas for makers of fatty foods'. But no such statement had been made.

Apart from the fact that there is no clear evidence that saturated fat is associated with obesity and heart disease, a fat tax, by increasing the overall price of food, would penalise people of normal weight and those who were less well-off. It would also penalise livestock and dairy farmers.

If the tax discouraged consumption of fatty foods and this is a moot point there is a risk that it could create a dietary imbalance for some people due to depleted intake of important nutrients including some types of saturated fat that are essential for health, and also fat-soluble vitamins. Few realise that not all saturated fats are bad. There is also some US evidence that indicates that cutting down fat in the diet encourages people to eat more sugar and carbohydrates and so increases the likelihood of weight gain through that route.

Another consideration is that not all fat in animal fat products, such as butter and meat, is saturated. For example, typically, only 39% of bacon fat is saturated while 45% is monounsaturated. Similarly, 50% of the fat in butter is saturated and 30% monounsaturated. The situation is similar for fats from other animals. However, it is important to note that these figures do vary according to the breed and diet of the animals concerned. Presumably the fat tax introduced in Denmark assumes that all fat in these foods is saturated. It would be too complicated otherwise because of this inherent variability in saturated fat levels.

In practice, these types of taxes are intended to raise money rather than alter behaviour. And, in this case, the theory is that the money would be used to cover the increased costs of healthcare incurred to treat obesity-related diseases. That is a defeatist approach because it aims to treat the symptoms rather than the disease and will not teach people how to construct healthy diets.

Let's sit back and see whether obesity levels in Denmark fall as a result of their fat tax. I bet they don't! They may even go up if people turn from fat to sugar. There is strong evidence to indicate that too much sugar is the main cause of obesity, heart disease and diabetes around the world not just Europe.

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