Denmark’s failed fat tax revealed the dangers of unintended consequences from poorly-conceived policy, said Dr Charlotte Evans, lecturer in nutritional epidemiology and public health nutrition at Leeds University.
“It seemed to be very sensible to increase the cost of butter by introducing a fat tax in Denmark,” said Evans, at the online seminar – Obesity and health, the big fat, sugar and salt debate – broadcast yesterday (July 3).
“But they found that people drove [over the border] to Germany to fill up their car boots with butter. So, we know we can’t just come up with good ideas; we need to evaluate them fully to ensure that the obesity crisis is managed in the best possible way.”
Professor Alan Jackson, director National Institute for Health Research, Southampton Biomedical Research Centre, said the problem of obesity was complex and multi-faceted. “It’s possible, by choosing one or other facet, to argue against almost any position and that makes for an engaging debate,” said Jackson.
‘We have a serious problem’
“But none of that detracts from the fact we have a serious problem [about obesity] in our society that touches nearly everyone and is threatening, not only the current health but the future health of the population.”
Finding answers to the obesity crisis – estimated to the cost the National Health Service alone £4.2bn – depended on a conversation that embraces a range of views. “The challenge is not only to speak frankly but to listen carefully to what the others say. And to work out how we can bring all the different perspectives together to work towards our common ambition, which has to be the health of our population.”
No stranger to plain speaking, Professor Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine and chairman of Consensus Action on Salt & Health and Action on Sugar, was clear about where the responsibility for obesity should lie – and its remedy.
“We are faced with a global pandemic of obesity and type 2 diabetes and this is entirely due to ultra-processed fast food that is very high in sugar, fat and salt and sweetened soft drinks,” said MacGregor. “None of these give any feeling of fullness and satiation.”
That was illustrated by the fact that one Big Mac meal with large chips and a big Coca-Cola is the equivalent in calories to 14 oranges or 10 bananas. “Now you try eating 14 bananas,” he said.
MacGregor said obesity could be prevented but not treated by reducing the sugar content of such foods by 40%, cutting fat by 15%, banning all advertising and sports sponsorship of unhealthy foods, reducing portion size and restricting availability.
‘Put a tax on sugar’
“The government should also put a tax on sugar and move responsibility for nutrition from the ridiculous responsibility deal – where the food industry is responsible for itself – to the FSA [Food Standards Agency] and have a proper scientific plan …,” he added.
But Barbara Gallani, the Food and Drink Federation’s director of regulatory, science and health division, insisted food and drink manufacturers were continuing to play their part in cutting calorie intakes to replicate the success achieved with salt reduction.
“Product ranges contain fewer calories through recipe reformulation, new product development and changes to portion sizes,” said Gallani. “In some cases, companies are able to reduce the sugar in recipes in order to achieve an overall calorie reduction and offer individuals low sugar options that remain of high quality and keep the desired taste.”
Calorie reduction plans had been further supported by initiatives to encourage physical activity and promote information about healthy lifestyles, she added.
Three influential groups – the Institute of Food Science & Technology, the British Dietetic Association and the Nutrition Society – backed the webinar in a bid to introduce more science into the obesity debate.
Missed the free, one-hour webinar? Don’t worry, once registered, you and your colleagues can listen any time, any number of times to the broadcast. Register here.
Watch out next week for more reports and video interviews, plus answers to question our expert panel did not have time to answer on FoodManufacture.co.uk.