Government should tax HFSS products to tackle obesity crisis: Danone

What’s happening? James Mayer, President of Danone UK & Ireland, has called for taxes on products high in fat, sugar, or salt (HFSS), to address the obesity crisis – the first time a major food company has requested government intervention in tackling rising obesity rates. Recent data shows that 64% of adults in England are overweight or obese. Mayer believes that food firms have been slow to pivot towards healthier options, meaning government action is necessary, including introducing taxes to incentivise healthy products and potentially taxing sugar and fat-laden items. The company wants clear guidelines and increased transparency in the industry to promote healthier, more sustainable products. (The Guardian)

Why does it matter? HFSS products and the manufacturers behind ultra-processed foods (UPFs) have been scrutinised recently, even prior to Mayer’s comments. In May, food and drink conglomerate Nestlé withdrew wording on their KitKat cereal packaging – which is nearly 25% sugar – which claimed the product was “nutritious” due to its inclusion of B vitamins, calcium, and iron.

The claims prompted the signing of an open letter by leading food and health organisations, such as Sustain, Food Foundation, and Obesity Health Alliance, who urged Nestle to remove references to the cereal’s health benefits given its high sugar content. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting also waded in on the debate, criticising the French multinational for its misleading marketing.

Nestle claims that up to 40% of its UK sales are of HFSS products while Danone has pledged a maximum of 10% of its sales will be in the HFSS category. To tackle their popularity, legislation has attempted to reduce the allure of HFSS products – ice cream, soft drinks, and biscuits have added VAT charges while most groceries are exempt. Danone wants the government to expand this list of VAT-added products.

UK government action has been piecemeal so far, however. In March, Health Tsar Henry Dimbleby resigned from his post due to perceived inaction by the government to impose restrictions on the junk food industry.

Health implications – Extensive research exists exploring how ultra-processed and HFSS products impact human health. Diets high in UPFs lead to higher rates of both cancer development and deaths, according to a 2023 study by Imperial College researchers, while other research has highlighted its link to increased risk of cardiovascular and cardiometabolic diseases.

It is not just physical health that suffers – high UPF consumers are 23% more likely to show “elevated psychological distress” than those who had a low intake, according to an Australian study. UPFs are high in carbohydrates and saturated fats which increases metabolic inflammation, causing depression and other mental health disorders.

Treating the obesity epidemic – The government’s Health Survey of 2021 estimated that 25.9% of adults in England are obese – above the European average of 23%.

While most obesity cases are caused by people eating too much – particularly UPFs – and not exercising enough, obesity can also be caused by genetic conditions or other health issues, such as an underactive thyroid.

In these cases, where diet and exercise alone do not lead to weight loss, medical treatments may hold the key to reducing the NHS’s annual £6.5bn obesity bill. UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a £40m pilot scheme to increase access to obesity treatments, such as the appetite suppressant Wegovy, which is manufactured by Danish pharmaceutical firm, Novo Nordisk. Sunak described the drug as a “game changer” and clinical trials show that users can lose up to 15% of their body weight within the first month.

With plans to roll out the injectable medication to tens of thousands of people with a BMI over 35, could the UK see a drastic reduction in obesity levels or is Sunak superficially plastering over the symptoms, rather than the root causes of the obesity epidemic?

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