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Warning over soaring grocery bills as ‘food tsar’ calls for taxes on salt and sugar

Mr Dimbleby, the founder of the Leon healthy fast food chain, stopped short of recommending a tax on red meat in his blueprint, but set a target for Britons to eat 30 per cent less meat by 2030.

Ministers should instead fund research into alternative proteins, including fermented microbes such as algae, insects, and meat tissue grown in laboratories, he urged.

The plan, to be published on Thursday, frames the Covid-19 pandemic, in which obesity is a heightened risk factor for individuals, as a “painful reality check” on Britain’s food system.

It outlines a series of policy proposals aimed at saving lives and protecting the NHS and environment. Poor diets contribute to 64,000 deaths a year and cost the economy around £74 billion.

Fight against obesity

Mr Dimbleby recommends allowing GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to people with obesity or diabetes, as well as to poorer families, at a cost of £1.1 billion a year.

Free school meals should be expanded to families with a maximum income of £20,000, up from the current threshold of £7,400, the plan urges.

Hospitals, schools and prisons should, meanwhile, be encouraged to buy more sustainable food, it suggests.

The plan calls for investment in sustainable farming techniques and for food and animal welfare standards to be protected in new trade deals, particularly with the United States and Brazil.

The report implicitly criticises the trade deal the Government has just clinched with Canberra, highlighting the carbon footprint and deforestation connected to Australian beef farming.

Reinstatement of food A-level

Boosted food education, including reinstating the A-level in food, is also recommended in the 290-page report.

It also outlines proposals to name and shame major food businesses pushing unhealthy items, by forcing them to publish an annual report setting out their sales – in revenue and volume terms – by food type.

This would include junk food and soft drinks high in fat, sugar or salt.

Writing for The Telegraph, Mr Dimbleby insists his tax proposal “would mean that, in order to keep costs down, food companies would have to make their products healthier before they even hit the shelves”.

He revealed that the chief executives of several major food companies had told him privately that they would welcome fiscal intervention, in order to take positive action on their product recipes without the threat of being undercut by rivals.

Celebrity supporters

A series of high-profile backers have come out in support of his strategy, including the chefs Jamie Oliver, Tom Kerridge and Prue Leith.

The heads of the Soil Association and College of Medicine also threw their support behind the proposals.

Baroness Casey, a former government homelessness tsar, said the strategy would help close the “nutritional gap between rich and poor in this country”.

It has also sparked criticism, however.

John O’Connell, the chief executive officer of the TPA, hit out at “middle-class meddling”, which he said threatened to “hit the poorest families hardest, as this madcap scheme will hike up costs of everyday essentials”.

The National Food Strategy estimates its recommendations will cost around £1.4 billion a year and bring in £2.9-3.4 billion a year in direct revenue to the Treasury, with a long-term economic benefit of up to £126 billion.

We have become trapped in a vicious circle – the Junk Food Cycle

By Henry Dimbleby, lead for the National Food Strategy and Independent Review for Government

Since 1992, there have been 14 different government strategies wholly or partly aimed at reducing obesity in the UK. None have succeeded.

Changing the way we eat, at a population level, is extraordinarily difficult – not least because most people believe the solution is simple.

What we need, goes the refrain, is information, exercise and willpower.

We should show people how to eat well, through public health campaigns and food labelling, get them moving around more, and leave the rest to individual self-control.

Opinion polls show this is a majority opinion even among those most likely to suffer from diet-related ill-health themselves. The unspoken, self-recriminatory logic is that if you know how to eat healthily but still get fat and ill, you deserve your misfortune.

The idea of free will is precious to us – even when we can’t for the life of us seem to deploy it. The people of this country already know what a healthy diet looks like.

More than 90 per cent of us know we should limit our intake of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt, and 99 per cent know we should be eating more fruit and vegetables. The problem is not information, but implementation.

Humans evolved in a world where food was scarce. Our appetite steers us towards calorie-dense foods because these are rare and precious in the wild. And having started eating them, we find it hard to stop.

The particular nature of modern processed food exacerbates this tendency.

Research has found that when food is high in sugar and fat but low in water content and insoluble fibre – as is the case with many processed products – our hormones take longer to convey satiety signals (the feeling of fullness). 

Even so, I hear you protest, some people still manage to stay thin. Isn’t that a testament to willpower? Only up to a point.

Scientists have found a strong genetic component to appetite. For social animals like humans, having diverse body types creates resilience.

Some of the tribe are predisposed to eat a lot and lay down fat reserves, the better to survive a famine. Others are predisposed to stay lean, so they can move fast against predators and other sudden threats.

In an environment where calories are easy to come by, most people have to work to maintain a healthy weight. But some have to swim harder against the current of their appetite.

Modern intensive agriculture has made calorie-dense ingredients – refined wheat, sugar, vegetable fats – abundant and cheap.

Companies have found increasingly innovative ways to process, package, and market this surplus. It is bizarre, but not really surprising, that in the UK you can buy 28 different kinds of KitKat.

Chocolate snacks are always going to be an easier sell than runner beans, and therefore a more interesting commercial proposition.

Because there is a bigger market for unhealthy food, companies invest more into developing and promoting it. This in turn expands the market further still. The bigger the market, the greater the economies of scale.

Highly processed foods are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods. This is one reason why bad diet is a particularly acute problem among the least affluent.

We have become trapped in a vicious circle – the Junk Food Cycle. The consequences for our health are devastating. The UK is now the third fattest country in the G7, with almost three in 10 of our adult population obese.

By 2035-36, diabetes alone is projected to cost the NHS £15 billion a year: one and a half times as much as cancer does today.

For the past two years I have been working on a National Food Strategy, intended to tackle the harms – both dietary and environmental – created by our food system.

Published on Thursday, it recommends (among many other things) the introduction of a sugar and salt reformulation tax for processed food.

This would mean that, in order to keep costs down, food companies would have to make their products healthier before they even hit the shelves. 

Privately, the chief executive officers of several major food companies have told me they would welcome this kind of intervention. The Covid-19 pandemic – made so much more deadly by the UK’s high obesity rate – has shocked them into wanting to do better.

But they need a level playing field. If they are to start making their products healthier, they must be confident that the competition won’t simply move in and undercut them.

Companies, like consumers, need help escaping the Junk Food Cycle. Relying on individual willpower is unrealistic, unkind, and doomed to failure.