Chewing the Fat

A week ago, just before the blog went off air, I was part of the expert panel at a community consensus conference on the topic “Should there be a tax on fatty foods”. This was organised by students at the UQ School of Journalism and was largely about exploring the process, though there was also plenty of interest in the substantive question. It was very professionally organised with its own website, video and news coverage.

The setup for these exercises is that members of the public with an interest in the question get together with a panel of experts to explore the issues, and try to reach a resolution that will hopefully be both well informed and more likely to gain public acceptance than simple reliance on expert judgement. I am sympathetic to the idea, but somewhat sceptical, in the light of experiences like the Constitutional Convention on the Republic (also mentioned by Kate Carnell, former ACT Chief Minister and now CEO of the Australian Food and Grocery Council who was on the panel). It seems to me that the experts ability to persuade the public participants in a process like this does not necessarily translate into an ability to gain broad public acceptance.

As it turned out, the majority of the public “jury” were sympathetic to the idea of a tax on fatty foods at the outset. Opinion among the experts, on the other hand, ranged from dubious to firmly opposed. Not surprisingly, this swayed the majority of the public participants. There was some interesting discussion of alternatives, but the concise nature of the process tried here (one half-day, as opposed to the multiple weekends adopted in other implementations) didn’t really allow for a full-scale alternative policy.

My opposition was largely based on the regressive nature of the tax, combined with scepticism about its effectiveness in changing diet. I’ve previously called for the removal of the current GST on processed foods, so my position was no surprise and similarly with Kate Carnell. More surprising, maybe, was the similar view of Ingrid Hickman an expert in Nutrition and Obesity who argued that there was no value in dividing foods into “good” and “bad” categories and that what mattered was a healthy cuisine.

A couple of minor exceptions to this came up as the conference went on. First, there are trans fats. I’d vaguely heard of these before and assumed they were a further subdivision of the saturated/unsaturated division. It turns out, however, that these are products of hydrogenation that do not occur in nature, are not essential to health and have numerous adverse effects. The correct response here is not a tax, though, but command and control in the form of a phaseout of these items from food production.

A more plausible case for a tax effect arises with soft drinks. It seems pretty clear that sugar-sweetened soft drinks are a lot worse than the artificially sweetened alternatives (though both are bad in similar ways to trans fats). You could make a good case for exempting the sugar-free versions from tax to promote substitution. The politics of this would be just about impossible, though.

21 thoughts on “Chewing the Fat

  1. There’s a common misunderstanding about fatty foods and obesity: “Fat=Fat”perhaps. Obesity is a serious problem – from both individual and public health perspectives – but fat in food isn’t so bad. Fats have a relatively slow metabolic pathways and some fats are important nutrients. Carbohydrate, especially starch which is just loosely bundled glucose molecules, is rapidly converted into free glucose which then floods the system and can at the wrong dosage produce a cascade of negative physiological effects culminating in things like obesity, type II diabetes, heart disease, cancers, etc, basically the works.

    High purity carbs like white flour, potatoes and sugar are virtually unknown in the natural world. In our hunter-gather evolutionary past a big mac and supersize fries may represent a couple of days work. So, while we are programmed to seek them, we unable to deal with this wildly nutritious stuff very well.

    This stuff is pretty well established nutritional science so it’s kind of funny that the proposal got to the conference stage at all, though knocking off common misconceptions usually has a bit going for it. A tax on fibre-free carbs has a lot more going for it, but the balanced diet is the real object…

  2. I agree with Jim above on the “Fat=Fat” misunderstanding. One thing that really annoys me is all of the highly processed foods marketed as “diet”, “lite”, “low-fat” and so on. In many cases these foods have had some fat removed, but are likely to have extra sugar. Regulations phasing out trans fats and a tax on soft drinks make sense.

  3. Two thoughts:
    1) When I was a young child growing up in the early 70’s in Mt Gambier, most of the children and parents that I knew weren’t fat; far from being fat they were probably at the low end to normal range on the modern BMI scale but certainly weren’t scrawny either. Now I have no idea about what was going on elsewhere in the cities, except to say that whenever I visited Adelaide on holidays or school trips, I don’t recall seeing many (if any) really fat kids. The implication as I see it is that in spite of soft drinks and other “junk” food, children for the most part avoided obesity or even just carrying a muffin-top. In Mt Gambier, in spite of the fairly cold weather, we generally got around on bicycles, played sport, ran amok (as in, played games, built things like go-carts, and so on), and didn’t watch TV every night. Perhaps in the 70’s the amount of advertising of junk food was limited by the small number of TV stations in rural areas (eg ABC and SES-8 were the only channels in Mt Gambier, and the ABC didn’t advertise). In any case, most of the kids I knew were very active and highly mobile – bicycle ownership was really high.

    2) There weren’t any bans in the 70’s, but we did have relatively easy access to junk food: the local corner shop; the local burger bar “Burger Chef”, a big-M clone; KFC, and so on.

    My feeling is that the issue involves multiple factors that have grown in significance since the 70’s, and some of these factors are in fact the problem. For example, where young children would wait impatiently for the Xmas or birthday age at which their parents would buy them a bike, they now get driven around after school by their parents. The rise of the two-parent working family has resulted in the need to have children involved in organised activity, until one of the parents leaves work and can supervise their child at home. Children who get home before the parents are unsupervised, leaving them to eat and watch what they want on TV and computers. So modern children are chauffeured about more rather than riding the bike or walking – the distance to travel to get to school and/or sports is probably more of an issue now than in the 70s – and time that children would once have spent “running amok” is now spent locked down in organised activities.

    I really feel that a ban is addressing only a fraction of the problem. If we try to get companies to avoid fat, they just switch to lo-fat products which are much higher in simple sugars than before. Yoghurt is a perfect example of that trend. Taste a traditional yoghurt and then compare with a “lo-fat” variety – you can almost feel the diabetes developing. This is one area that I feel requires parents to take responsibility for supervision of their charges – especially providing reinforcement as to what is appropriate food and what isn’t. It is a pity that the modern social structure involves two parents working; I think I can appreciate just how much of a juggle it is to work and have a young child to occupy in a meangful way. My mother was a teacher in Victoria when I was 2 to 4 years old, and I certainly remember being in day care or private care (and being at the school in Mum’s classes when no alternative was available that day). Fortunately it was a relatively short period that the need for daycare was there.

  4. Donald – half the problem is that sugar is such a cheap ingredient and its addictive. Once they start putting it into to things like yoghurt – the consumer gets accustomed to it and the manufacturer doesnt mind at all. I agree – its the sugar content people really need to be watching. Ever tasted that revolting sweet bread that is so normal in the US? (More like cake). Its in processed foods whether you want it or not – avoid woolies where possible and go to the fruit and vege barns (and it is possible to avoid woolies and if you watch enough cooking shows – its pretty easy to go fresh).

  5. Re #5 Yep Alice, I know about the bread all right :-), used to buy sourdough instead, when in the US. That seemed to be a tastier alternative. Actually, some stuff over there is really good, but you have to search for it. Regular food, ie stuff that most people buy when rushed for time or on autopilot, contained too much of the corn syrup sugar…and that is without a doubt a contributor to the problem of ballooning weight. That and the fact that they don’t have footpaths (sorry, “sidewalks”) along some of the major roads, at least when I was there. Drive-up ATMs, I mean sheesh!

  6. Actually, all this talk of food reminds me – the food at the local market in Adelaide (“Central Market”, Gouger St / Grote St) is a great place for produce.

  7. The whole process of fast food is designed to be addictive and at the top of the list of important features is that from the advertisement which gets the saliva going, to rolling up in your mobile loungeroom and gaining satisfaction can only take a few minutes.

    Memories of wonderful flavours, the combination of lashings of fats, sugars, salt, artificial smoke and God knows what else stimulate the appetite at the merest golden arch paper bag blowing in the wind let alone graphic images on TV.

    You get to go out without having to dress up or get out of the car with it’s climate control, tailored seating, stereo, 360 views and security. You get three courses for a low price and you don’t have to do the dishes. I want some maccas and I wnat it now! And there it is.

    Back in the days when there were mainly fish and chip shops you at least had to get out of the car and wait a while for it to be cooked. It also wasn’t the done thing to appear in your food stained trackies and holey singlet and bare feet.

    The other problem is the shear volume of fast food establishments in a given area and the link between obesity and this high volume has been established.

    As Donald would know, Murray Bridge is the perfect example and I think local Councils need to take responsibility by limiting the number of licenses just as other social ills like poker machines are.

  8. The point about low-fat (high sugar) yoghurt was one that was made at the conference. Apparently, the amount of fat in Australian diets has decreased, but, thanks to more sugar, and more total caloric intake, Australians have nevertheless got fatter.

  9. Re #7 Salient Green,

    Yep, Murray Bridge now has pretty much the whole shebang of franchised-fast-food (or, “fff”, McDonalds, KFC, and Dominos (I think it’s Dominos, never ordered from them)). Won’t say what the “f” stands for on a family blog.
    More seriously, the fff mob are so iconic now, that when I moved back to Murray Bridge after several years in Sydney, it finally had that ubiquitous cluster of the fast food chains along the main drag – and my first thought was “Murray Bridge is a real town now”, in the sense that it had the Holy Trinity of fast food groups. My point is that these franchises have attained a cultural – not culinary – significance, and that in itself becomes a factor in town councils agreeing to their placement, I suspect.

    [Nostalgia Alert] Ah for the old days, when fruit was fruit, bread was bread, the local milkie delivered it by the urn – complete with cream, and you could pat the horse, and the local general store had a place where the store’s empty boxes were left for the customers to use.

  10. I doubt that there would be much support for local government interferring in business decisions of citizens.

    However planning laws at a State level could include such features as limitations on the number of food outlets on highways. Not very realistic as the State governments prefer to help corporations rather than citizens through planning laws.

    Sugar has been described as an addictive substance and if there was a tax on this it might help pay for food campaigns in prime time looking at ways to use fruit and vegetables to appeal to children.

    Banning fast food advertisements in prime time would be a far better policy than a tax. When you see the impact of fast food ads on babies and also the latest ads which has a story showing that if a child plays sport happy families eat at a fast food outlet after the game, it becomes clear that the fast food industry is all about getting the consumers hooked at an early age and using pester power to ensure a captive market.

    The fast food chains could be made to have pictures of obese people dying in hospital and clogged arteries displayed at the doors of the outlets like they do on cigarette packets.

  11. I lost 30kg on an Atkins style diet where I paid no attention to the amount of fat I ate but closely looked at every gram of carbohydrates. My cholesterol was lower than normal and by almost every measure I was in excellent shape at the end of that process. I went from pre-diabetic to very healthy.

    Since that time I have stopped listening to expert opinions about most “fats”. In my opinion the real culprit are junk carbohydrates. Sugary drinks, starch products based on highly refined flours etc. If you want an example of something to tax then look at the health effects of high fructose corn syrup

    Put another way, the “nutrition experts” have no consensus on what is causing the obesity epidemic. Until they do the public policy measures to fix the problem are going to be as pointless as a the suggested tax on fats.

    A little hint for you. The food manufacturers don’t give a damn about reducing fat content. Fats are expensive to produce. Carbohydrates and sugars, on the other hand, are very cheap and often quite addictive. Why do you think there are so many fat free products out there? Here’s an exercise for you. Go out to your local supermarket and compare the sugar content of the normal and fat free versions of any product. Every single time the fat free version has more sugar. The manufacturers just love this. People buy food that is cheaper for them to make becuase it substitutes expensive fat with cheap sugar, and its more addictive as its got more sugar, and the consumer thinks they are buying something healthy. No wonder we’re all getting fatter.

  12. Fat free is a con – its the sugar content I always search (in that box on the side) – Sure it may have no fat or little fat – but the carb content from sugar is often through the ceiling at amounts that even amaze me…. what point is there saving on fat if you gain weight easily on carbs (and I do).

    Moral of the story – anything processed…dont trust it. Then if you like swiss cheese on crackers with sundried tomatoes, you only have yourself to blame. At least you know honestly who made it and who ate it. Avoid anything in a packet with a red tick! The red tick means danger…and keep skipping!

  13. From the clues given first by Donald and then by Jill, I googled ‘fast food culture’. There’s an awful lot written about it. Much more than I expected and scary. Here’s a long one, but thorough, headlined, ‘The True Cost Of America’s Diet’

    I haven’t finished reading it yet but am horrified. Economically, politically, nutritionally, medically, psycologically, the fast food culture is a monster.

    Having said that, a mate of mine did exactly the same as swio (ditto congrats) on the Atkins diet but has since succumbed to his old diet of, not American fast food but, pies, pasties and flavoured milk – Australian fast food you would have to call it.

    Alice, yes I do like cheese and sundried tomatoes on crackers but have replaced it with olive oil and homemade Dukkah. Surprisingly non-fattening, very satisfying and very good for regulating the system.

  14. Salient – I agree the fast food industry is horrible BUT its not just the fast food industry. There are an amazing number of foods that look OK on the supermarket shelves but when you do read the ingredients list – its quite surprising – sugar content and salt content – even in “marketed as healthy” breakfast cereals. Its the hidden “obesity” ingredients (and dont forget the trans fats) that is quite amazing. Yoghurt is the classic example, but then there is breakfast cereals, breads, nibblies etc and the new one on the block is those “vitamin water” drinks (CCamatil) – loaded to the max with sugar. Ill give your dukkah a go with flat type bread right?

  15. Alice, ubiquitious is the word for it. It’s a bit hard to put the blame for obesity on poor choices when it’s getting increasingly difficult to make good choices.

    Good idea using flat bread, I haven’t tried that one.

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