/ Food & Drink, Health

Would taxing junk food make us healthier?

Woman weighing up donut next to apple

BBC’s Panorama asked whether a tax on junk food would make Britian healthier earlier in the week. But should we be concentrating on reducing the price of healthy options instead?

There’s no doubt that most of us are getting fatter. A staggering quarter of adults are already obese and children aren’t that far behind. And even beyond obesity, other diet-related diseases are major killers – whether it’s cancer, heart disease or stroke.

What we eat is obviously not the whole picture – it’s about healthy lifestyles more generally. But it’s often easier and quicker to get your calories ‘in’ than to get them ‘out’ by exercising more.

A lot of the trends we’ve seen in recent years have been a mixed blessing. Everything is convenient – which can help with our busy, multi-tasking lives – but it can also make it difficult to keep track of exactly what you’re eating. Hidden calories, fat, sugar and salt can all lurk in foods that we eat without a thought.

We’ve been campaigning to make it easier to make healthier choices for a long time. It can often seem like the default is to be unhealthy. That’s why we’ve called for a range of inter-related measures, such as clearer labelling, information about what’s in food when you eat out, changes to recipes and more honest marketing.

Is taxing junk food an option?

In the current economic climate, price is obviously a really important factor when shopping for food. A survey we did last year – perhaps unsurprisingly – found that people thought it would be easier to eat healthily if healthy foods were cheaper.

You may have seen Panorama this week talking about whether we should now be looking at food taxes for unhealthy food. There’s been a lot of debate about this in the US, especially since their problem is even worse than ours – particularly in relation to sugary soft drinks that contain loads of calories but no real nutritional benefit.

But food taxes are a controversial area. They hit the poorest hardest, and food prices are already on the rise anyway. Since we already pay VAT on some foods, maybe we should restructure this system to be more effective from a health perspective?

Why not make healthy choices cheaper?

Our research has found that that people were actually more open to measures that would make healthier choices cheaper, rather that making unhealthy ones pricier.

From a recent review we commissioned, we found that there are various options beyond putting tax up on less healthy food or ingredients. Supermarkets could look at what types of food they put into price promotions, the price of fruit and veg could be subsidised in some outlets, and smaller portions shouldn’t have to come with a bigger price, for example.

So it seems worth exploring how different types of tax could work, what the implications are and how they could realistically be applied. But it’s also important to consider a broader range of options to make healthy foods more affordable. Do you think we should look into making healthier choices cheaper, rather than adding tax to junk food?


Price and ease are probably the two most urgent drivers, if ‘good food’ was less expensive and much closer to ‘ready to eat’, the two main barriers to its uptake might be reduced. However there are also the barriers of ‘not being lectured’, of some things ‘not being cool’, or only eaten by, toffs/working *********** class, and so on or so forth, or (think of a group that is not respected by another).
So yes prices is important, availability is important, ready to eat is important, taste, appearance and style are all important.
Perhaps the idea that some foods are ‘good’ and that some are therefore ‘bad’ is the most dangerous issue.
Good food is good in who’s eyes?
A burger and chips might be dreadful in the eyes of a nutritionist, but in the eyes of those who eat it it is good tasty food, good price, ready to eat and no washing up.

Sophie Gilbert says:
19 November 2010

Asking in whose eyes good food is good is like asking is whose eyes smoking is bad. Smoking gives you pleasure at the time, is cheaper than alcohol per unit, comes in a handy packet and you don’t even really have to use an ashtray, but this is missing the point.

I think we should both make healthier food cheaper and make junk food dearer. Most of us like a bit of junk food, but it should be regarded as an occasional treat. Keeping it at a low price would just be too tempting for some.

I agree with past sell by, however. A lot of us gobble junk food because it is more convenient than cooking a meal from scratch, cut our noses to spite our faces because we feel we’re being lectured instead of advised, have strange stereotyped ********** perceptions, etc. How we circumvent these problems isn’t the matter at hand, but it is part of the whole picture.

Sophie Gilbert says:
19 November 2010

There was no expletive to be deleted where there is ********* in my comment (and probably not in past sell by’s either?). Is this just a technical glitch?

Sorry about that Sophie, it’s our profanity filter being a little over the top. If you can remember what the word was, I can put it back in. Thanks.

Sophie, you are right, I simply listed a random selection of classes or groupings that others outside of the groups might like to disrespect. This was the real point, good food is a highly mobile or flexible concept based largely on the group defining the items.
Perhaps one way forward is to try to improve the quality of the so called bad food, improving the fat or oil balance, finding ways to introduce cost effective additional ‘improvers’. The problem will continue as long as it can be seen as a kill joy crusade by those possibly affected.
The filters are still an issue and appear to need a little more, no make that considerably more, ‘tuning’.

I think the simple quick answer to the question is “no”. If only it was that simple. You will never be able to accurately define junk food, for a start. Sure you can top the list with joints selling fried chicken, hamburgers and kebabs but where do you draw the line? And does a burger served with a crisp leafy salad still constitute junk food? The food industry would just love the ensuing confusion and see the whole campaign collapse. So sorry, I dont agree it seems worth exploring how different types of tax could work – because it wont!
The problem (obesity) is caused by our sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of too many carbohydrates (especially refined carbohydrates such as sugar (in all its misleading guises), white flour, white rice, pasta and all the things that are made from them and go to make cheap products). Thinking that all ‘low fat’, ‘diet’, ‘diabetic’ etc products are good for you is dangerous. Some of the fat is replaced by sugar, salt and other unhealthy fillers & additives to put some taste back into the product and make it sell.
Why am I so passionate about this subject? Well, even though I was not obese, I was diagnosed with diabetes 2 years ago. Luckily it was found early and through doing a lot of research I realised how I could change my diet, cut consumption of carbohydrates (and most refined) , do more exercise and control the disease without medication.
So please dont think that it is just obesity we should be concerned about. You can get heart disease, stroke, diabetes etc even when you are thin.
It would seem the government should be a lot more pro-active on this issue and stop pandering to the food industry lobbyists. It concerns us all because it is going to be the taxpayers who pick up the nations health bill in the years ahead.

What another tax on the poor and needy?

Ridiculous idea from the trendy fools in turf houses

Shell Smith says:
31 January 2011

In my opinion, no we shouldn’t be taxing ‘junk’ food. I agree with lowering the price of healthier INGREDIENTS and not convience foods. And by convience foods, i mean all ‘junk’ and ‘healthy’ ready meals.
To be honest, it’s a load of rubbish that making meals from scratch is difficult and time consuming. Whoever says that isn’t doing it right or doing it in the most awkward way. I am a single mum of 3, who does alot of voluntary work and still has time to make meals from scratch every night. Alot of it is not knowing how to cook. Instead of taxing food to shreads, we should be concentrating on teaching children of all ages to cook, PROPERLY!! And not cooking cakes and snacks like they do. My youngest child is 3 and loves to help me prepare the dinner and has for about a year now. Ok alot of the time he’s watching but he still is showing an interest and i am willing to teach.
I am not really a big fan of Jamie Oliver but I agree with his idea about healthier locally-grown hand-prepared dinners but not just at school. In the home as well.

Why penalise any food – it is a personal choice as to the sort of food you choose to buy. Some may like cooking from scratch, others mix it with ready meals, and others like junk food. The key is to educate to show the consequences of poor food and the contents of food by decent informative labelling; let people take responsibility for what they eat. I don’t know why poor people are assumed to be those who would suffer most by taxing junk food – it can already be more expensive than plain food, so buying fresh veg, cheaper meat and a slow cooker might save them a lot of money as well as being healthier.

I am against Tax on any food if they start on so called Junk Food it would spread within a few years to all foods.I do think the government should legislate what actually constitutes e.g.A tin of chicken Curry it should be containing at least 50% of chicken;sausage should contain 50%pork if its pork sausage or pork and beef.If a product contains less than 50% of what it says it is then 50% should be the minimum any less it should say chicken curry flavor or pork flavored sausage.Jams are another it says more fruit on a jar of jam yet actual fruit content is only 50% many are much less the public are being conned by food manufacturers strife for profit before the nations health.

The legislation is pretty poor on food content, I agree. I don’t think however legislation will be of much help. I look at the ingredients routinely on such things as sausages, meat pies and so on, so it is easy to make a choice.
Regarding jam, I also look at the fruit content. However I understand you need a certain amount of sugar to preserve the fruit, which is why the fruit content may be less than 50%. Some jams have a higher fruit content but need refrigerating – I’m looking at M&S soft set: Plum and Damson – 65%. Srawberry 67% fruit.

Malcolm R no its not me i am Malc.Moore while you& i may check the small print a mother with 2 young children i doubt if all these mums have the time having to keep check on their kids & read small print large wording you can read large print in a second small print takes time others do not have.What i am saying is we need proper legislation because not only the busy mum but those with poorer eyesight cannot read are being conned thinking they are getting proper sausages when in actual fact it only contains 30% of what you think U are buying the list of scams and it is a scam is endless i saw a Family size chicken& vegetable pie only 10% chicken which is the worst i have seen.I personally like streamline jam it contains 65%fruit&reduced sugar i was highly disappointed they closed their UK factory down and just export from Denmark but at least its a good product if we had better legislation then food labeling would be better for all of us.I put this to you is a tin of chicken curry with only9% chicken right i say its a scam they should label it chicken flavored curry.I remain against any Tax on food any food.