Do we really have a choice with unhealthy food 3 times cheaper than healthy food?

2 weeks on from the launch of our Force-Fed report, Laura Sandys – Chair of the Food Foundation – asks why the food system is treated differently from other sectors of the economy.

We have to question whether our much hailed food system is truly serving the UK population, or merely manipulating the consumer to absorb food that is unhealthy for the individual and dramatically detrimental to UK plc and our wider prosperity. With healthy food costing three times as much as unhealthy food, consumers really don’t have the choice that the industry professes exists.

At the heart of the problem is the burgeoning obesity crisis hitting school performance, the NHS’ capacity to deal with a chronic diabetes time bomb, and our international productivity. Bad food is not just a lifestyle choice – it is a national disaster that impacts adults and children up and down the country.

David Cameron has argued that obesity must be tackled as seriously as smoking, but a lack of joined up thinking and a poor appetite for structural change pervades in practice. But while politicians thrash and gnash their teeth, the current status quo is badly entrenched in political psych across Whitehall.

The big retort from “free marketers” is that we are free to make a choice about what we eat. Yes, of course we are free to make our own choices, but these are most certainly shaped and distorted by marketing and pricing strategies pushing us interminably towards diets that really do have long-term negative outcomes. The Food Foundation recently published their ‘Force Fed’ report which clearly demonstrates how we are not as free as we might like to think to make the choices that are good and healthy for our families.

The in-depth research report focuses on average family choices and how these are distorted by the retail experience both in shops and through the growing fast food environment with a staggering 47% of young children’s calories coming foods which are high in fat, sugar or salt

The Food Foundation argues that educating individuals on how to make healthy choices can’t work when there are so many factors pushing behaviour in the opposite direction. It is not the consumer that is making bad choices but policy and business practises that are seriously shaping those choices. The onus must then be placed on government and business to take concerted action, from the local to European level, to make it easier for people to eat healthily.

From the car park to the checkout, we are being driven towards higher margin lower quality goods, while the fast food sector is expanding fast: with the number of eating out premises, which come under much less scrutiny than the supermarkets, increasing over 50% nationwide over the past ten years. Can we really afford for 20% of our children to leave primary school obese? Can we risk one in twenty older people having diabetes – risking limb amputations and lifelong dependency on medication with negative side effects? Can we risk the economic impact overloading the health service and greatly diminishing so many people’s quality of life?

Can the food companies deny responsibility for chronic increases in dietary-related diseases, when in the US, fizzy drink companies produce 30 gallons of non-diet drinks for each person in the country per year? With one daily can of sugary drink increasing individuals’ risk of diabetes by 22%, Big Food companies cannot offer a plausible denial of their influence over health. In some studies laboratory animals prefer sugar to cocaine, yet this is what we casually buy day in day out for our children.

So why is the food system given a free pass when so many other business sectors are obliged to deliver a public good?

Despite the VW debacle, the car industry is required to reduce air pollution for the wider societal good, energy companies have an obligation to reduce fuel poverty, we set very high standards for children’s toys that impacted less than 100 children over the last 10 years, and the imposition of seat belts in cars has reduced the number of global deaths by 1 million. These are all sensible measures, designed and implemented to save lives, but at the same time we still allow food and poor diet to contribute to 20% of all life years lost to early death of disability in the UK alone. While it is nothing new to require businesses to deliver safe, responsible products and services that deliver value to consumers, there is a blind spot when we examine the impacts of food on the nation’s health.

All the Food Foundation’s launch report is demanding is that consumer choice is equally provided to healthy and unhealthy foods, and that the distortions in the food system that are creating a new global epidemic are addressed.

However we appear to be content to put ill health on a plate and serve it up to so many of our citizens.

By Laura Sandys, Chair of the Food Foundation

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