Processed food – an illusion of choice?

Snickers bar

Mmmm… Snickers

Mmmm… Snickers. It’s one of my absolute favourite guilty pleasures – a perfect combination of salt, sugar and fat, chewy and crunchy and DELICIOUS. So when, briefly, there were plans to reformulate Snickers so they would no longer be vegetarian, I was incensed.

How dare they deny me the choice to eat my Snickers? Ok, so it’s not the healthiest snack, but dammit I can make my own decisions. Luckily, the worst did not come to pass and I am still free to eat my favourite chocolate bar when the mood takes me. Or am I… ?

I’ve been reading a lot about ‘unhealthy’ foods recently. There’s a growing wave of opinion that processed foods need to be regulated, because they make unhealthy lifestyles that little bit too easy and appealing, landing health services with huge problems like obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

But so far no one has hit on the best way to do this – and part of the reason why is because of the ingenious re-framing of the question by the huge companies that stand to lose the most. You might be outraged at the thought of extra tax on unhealthy foods – why should you pay for other people’s obesity problems? But, without sounding too much like a crazy conspiracy theorist… that’s exactly what they want you to think.

There was a great article in the Lancet this week pointing out that ‘the science of the effect of corporate behaviour on public health is an emerging area… that needs to be developed substantially’. It’s not just the foods that can be dangerous – the companies that make them can be too. To put it academically, ‘corporate disease vectors implement sophisticated campaigns to undermine public health interventions’.

The ‘nanny state’ argument is a perfect example – one that was rolled out by tobacco corporations in opposition to cigarette taxes and regulation. Emphasising the idea that smoking is a ‘personal choice’ – despite all the evidence of the power of nicotine addiction – bolsters potential suspicion of government regulation.

And it’s the same with junk food. One of the scariest examples the article gives is the horrifying fact that the US Sugar Association tried to block the World Health Organisation’s strategy on diet, exercise and health by threatening that it would lobby the US government to withdraw its funding from the WHO. Even the WHO doesn’t get a free choice in this debate.

Meanwhile in the UK, food companies haven’t been keen on suggested regulations like ‘traffic-light’ food labels – even though clearer labelling actually makes it easier for consumers to make a choice based on accurate health information. The UK government now says a consistent labelling system will come in this year – but arguments have meant a lot of delays.

What the Lancet article also makes clear is that ‘public regulation and market intervention are the only evidence-based mechanisms to prevent harm caused by the unhealthy commodity industries’. However much you value your freedom to choose an unhealthy, untaxed snack every now and again, you probably also value your ability to access a health service that isn’t (yet) crippled by diseases linked to obesity and unhealthy diets.

The more I read about food industry regulation, the more it looks like a case of pay now (in tax and regulation of certain foods) or pay later (in tax for more expensive healthcare). That’s because your choice to eat a Snickers doesn’t just affect you – it could potentially affect everyone who is part of the same food market and health system that you are. Governments really need to figure out which option gives them the best value for money.

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