Food has become deeply politicised. There is growing anger at a food system that badly impacts our health and the environment.
Many families are struggling to put food on the table. The Trussell Trust reports a record 2.5 million food parcels were given to people in the year leading up to March 2021.
That’s the context for last week’s publication of the National Food Strategy, authored by restaurateur Henry Dimbleby.
It calls for a £3 billion sugar and salt tax that it hopes will improve our diets.
The idea is that businesses would “reformulate” their products to adjust to the policy. But if this were not possible then the price increase would mean consumers buying less.
It is certainly true that eating too much sugar and salt contributes to poor health. And the food industry is to blame.
Processed foods are the principal source of sugar and salt in people’s diets. Some 85 percent of sugar sold in Britain is for manufacturing use and 75 percent of the salt we eat comes from processed foods.
There are vast profits gained from selling foods created from cheap ingredients and produced on a massive scale. Over half the foods consumed in Britain are labelled “ultra-processed”.
The whole process of food production destroys much of the flavour and texture of the food, as well as any goodness there may have been. So this needs to be added back in.
But as well as adding flavour, the industry also wants to hide “off flavours” from the manufacturing process. There’s a whole industry known as “flavour technology systems” that’s devoted to flavourings.
Much of this does indeed come from sugar and salt. These additives are directed at creating “bliss points” where the flavour is optimised to override our natural feeling of being sated.
Proposals that foods can be “reformulated” is not a solution either. Manufacturers already reformulate products. It’s not to make them healthy but to make them cheaper, so more profit can be made.
There’s a chemical industry that advises food manufacturers on how food can be shaped, engineered and re-designed. It means many of our foods have been chemically altered.
For example, ultra-processed cheese is made from milk powder and additives. Some instant noodles are not actual noodles but are based on oils, starch and additives.
Key features of ultra-processed food are a lack of nutritional value, and low proteins, minerals and vitamins whilst being high in calories.
While tackling the amount of sugar and salt is a good place to start, the problem is much broader. The long term impact of chemically altering foods is not fully known, but many studies are showing a negative impact on our health.
The report rightly points out that healthier foods are three times more expensive than processed foods. The poorest 10 percent of English households would need to spend nearly three quarters of their disposable income on food to follow the Eatwell Guide diet.
This compares with the diet costing only 6 percent of the richer households’ income.
As the report acknowledges, if the price of some foods were to rise due to a sugar and salt tax then those on low incomes may have even less money to spend on healthy food.
Therefore, it recommends that the money made from the tax should be spent on initiatives such as expanding free school meals and holiday clubs.
But it does not go far enough. All children should be eligible for free school meals.
These should be cooked by trained staff in school kitchens, and not pre-cooked by private companies.
Instead of taxing sugar and salt, why not legislate so only a certain amount can be used, why not ban certain additives? Why not ban junk food advertisements whilst making healthy foods cheaper?
Why not go further and use school kitchens to produce healthy, cheap food for local people to access?
But even these limited changes would require challenging the giant food companies profits— something that the report is unwilling to do.