Humans and Health

National Food Strategy: Inequality and the ‘Junk-Food Cycle’

A picture of a standard vending machine with a variety of snacks
Rian Patel

Soon after the government-commissioned National Food Strategy Part 2 was published, tabloids and the news reeled off headlines spreading the word about a possible incoming sugar and salt tax on our foods. ‘Bonkers’, described The Sun. ‘Boris’ war on chocolate biscuits!’, cried The Daily Express. ‘…tax will add £160 to UK grocery bills’, wrote The Guardian. The tax is just one recommendation in the document’s plan to shake up and improve England’s, and also the UK’s, food system.

A total of 14 recommendations are the output of Henry Dimbleby’s – the government’s ‘food tsar’ – independent review to address the ‘Junk-Food Cycle’; to reduce diet-related inequality in the country; improve our land usage, and ‘create a long-term shift in our food culture’.

Though it did not take long for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to appear to pour cold water over the proposed tax, many others see this and the entire strategy as the food industry’s ‘wake-up call’. No wonder, as it is an insightful review that took in diverse knowledge from farmers, industry experts, and the public. It explains our relationship with the modern food system and its strong link to climate change. It delivers ways in which parts of the system can unlock better practices and make the right changes – for our health, and the environment.

Celebrity chefs, chairs from the likes of the British Heart Foundation and the College of Medicine, and venerated economist Sir Partha Dasgupta, among others, have all stressed and valued the importance of this review. It matters; 1 in 7 of us in the UK work in the food industry and we are all consumers.

In Part 1, released in July 2020, four recommendations related to food inequality were implemented by the government. Part 2 goes for further recommendations on food inequality through giving greater eligibility for free school meals; continuing the Holiday Activities and Food Programme for children for three more years, and trialling a ‘Community Eatwell’ programme.

This programme centres around promoting preventative measures to stop illness and death due to diet. Where GPs can prescribe fruit and vegetables, walking, and food-growing projects, the programme is argued to be cost-effective and save the NHS money.

No matter the willpower, we as a human race are incredibly attracted to high/dense-calorie foods and sugar. It is an irresistible craving that strikes us from the early days of humanity, where food like this was scarce in the wild. Today in the UK, like never before, our access to these food products is cheap and plentiful. The aisles of our supermarkets are laden with them.

Our diet choices have still fuelled high obesity rates

Consumer habit is driven by affordability, availability, convenience, marketing and taste. All five of these factors play into the hands of unhealthy foods. The growth of processed foods, ready-meals and High Fat, Sugar and Salt (HFSS) foods are causes of concern. This too, with ultra-processed foods, where sugar, oils and starch make up their bulk.

So what is the cycle? We in the UK consume these products in a relentless fashion. 50% of UK household purchases are marked as ultra-processed, compared to just 13% in Italy. As consumers, we drive up profits for the industry and companies, and they respond by pumping investment into unhealthy food marketing and research. We then consume again. They use the money to promote products again.

31%, a majority of marketing funds, goes toward promoting HFSS foods and brands.  This is the cycle. If they chose not to promote, another company in the free market would swiftly fill the gap. This issue beckons for government legislation to create a level playing field.

The National Food Strategy informs us that we often know what is good and not good for our bodies, yet as a nation, our diet choices have still fuelled high obesity rates. Giving people free will and choice, including food and its consequences, is something many people hold close to their hearts. Not least the Prime Minister, who is trying to avoid the ‘nanny state’. Yet, the strategy’s recommendation to impose a tax on sugar and salt food products seems to defeat this ideal.

The government has stepped in before, with the ‘Soft Drinks Industry Levy’ in 2018, taxing soft drinks. The result so far has been that the industry has reduced sugar in those drinks by 29%. The review writes that this is a success, and its own recommendation on the sugar and salt reformulation tax would incentivise companies to reduce levels of these in their products or reduce portions. This would both generate revenue and go some way to reduce the 64,000 deaths a year related to poor diets in England.

Indeed, HFSS food consumption needs to reduce by 25% by 2032 (compared to 2019) in order to meet existing government targets on health, climate and nature. The strategy recommends that some of the estimated £3.4billion that could be raised by the tax should go to delivering fruit and veg to low-income families. After all, per calorie, HFSS foods tend to be cheaper than healthier food.

Can we put a price on our health?

To attempt to close this Junk-Food Cycle, two other recommendations have been put forward. One is to introduce mandatory, yearly reporting for large food companies, including retailers, manufacturing and restaurants. In this report, they would detail the sales of fruit and veg, HFSS foods, and types of protein.

The other is to encourage a transformation for schools and children, under the ‘Eat and Learn’ initiative. This would include ‘sensory education’ for younger children, reinstating the food A-level, and funding, accreditation and inspection for school lessons.

These recommendations to reduce diet-related inequality and the effects of the ‘Junk-Food Cycle’ may seem costly and radical to the taxpayer. However, the strategy points to the entire plan having a potential long-term benefit of £126 billion. Whether this estimate does come to be, and the government willingly takes on all recommendations, the ultimate question remains: Can we put a price on our health?

Taking preventative measures in the community to lower public health spending is what the strategy seeks to achieve. If political ideology, of ‘big government’, ‘nanny state’, and supposed reduction in freedom of choice are the roadblocks, many will question whether the country has missed an opportunity to address ill-health, and inequalities in diet and the food system’s faults.

‘National Food Strategy: Farming, Meat and Climate Change’ is the follow-on Impact article to this piece, in which the strategy’s recommendations to improve biodiversity and address climate change are discussed. 

Rian Patel

Featured Photo by tkraska from Flickr. Image license found here. No changes were made to this image.

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