This obsession with fat is really taxing
Denmark has introduced a ‘fat tax’ - but what business is it of governments to tell us what we should eat?
‘A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of health authoritarianism.’ With apologies for misquoting those dead, hairy Germans, Karl and Frederick, the creeping terror these days is not the possibility of the workers of the world uniting (if only). Instead it is governments’ decision to fill in the blank where their sense of purpose used to be with increasing intervention into every once-private detail of our lives. It’s no longer ‘you are what you eat’, but ‘you’ll be what we tell you to eat, or else’.
The latest episode in the war on our waistlines is the introduction of a ‘fat tax’ in Denmark. From 1 October, Danes are being charged for the amount of saturated fat in the food they eat. Any food that contains more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat - like meats, cheeses, butter, crisps and some fast foods - will be taxed with 16 Kroner (about £1.84) for each kilogram of saturated fat. For example, a packet of butter will now cost about 25 pence more than before.
Denmark is not the first country to impose this kind of tax. In January, Hungary introduced a tax on any ‘unhealthy’ foods that have more than the approved amount of fat, salt and sugar. The Hungarian policy looks like a blatant tax-grab justified on the basis that people who eat the wrong foods should pay more. Other countries that have introduced, or are considering introducing, similar taxes include Romania and Finland, while taxes on fizzy, sugary drinks have been in place for some time in five EU countries, including Denmark.
The question is, why the hell should a government decide - or heavily influence - our choice of food? Surely we should be the judge of what we eat. Why should we be taxed just for enjoying food?
In his bestseller, Kitchen Confidential, the American chef and writer Anthony Bourdain is forthright in his defence of butter: ‘I don’t care what they tell you they’re putting or not putting in your food at your favourite restaurant, chances are you’re eating a ton of butter. In a professional kitchen, it’s almost always the first and last thing in the pan.’ You want your food to taste good? Then you need plenty of fat and salt in it. That’s Cooking 101, but clearly they don’t care about that in the corridors of power in Copenhagen.
The fat tax is also fat headed. For example, it’s been known for decades that saturated fat doesn’t cause heart disease. In the early 1980s, a major study compared two groups of subjects: one ate a normal American diet; the other ate a diet that was lower in fat and, in particular, saturated fat. The result? No difference in heart-disease rates. In fact, even when the link between heart disease and saturated fat was first mooted in the 1950s, the data it was based on was extremely ropey. Yet this tale survives despite repeated failures to confirm it.
Nor is there much evidence that fat itself is fattening. In reality, it seems the previous Danish government (it just lost power in the September General Election) decided that Danes needed to be taxed on their unhealthy eating habits and then spent months trying to figure what exactly ‘unhealthy’ meant.
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Meanwhile, in the UK, the war on our waistlines is being waged on a different front. A report by the School Food Trust claims that 40 per cent of primary schoolchildren’s packed lunches contain no fruit or vegetables. The SFT doesn’t have much faith in parents to feed their children properly, so it is urging them to allow their children to have school dinners instead.
Patricia Mucavele, research and nutrition manager at the SFT, told the BBC: ‘Packed lunches aren’t as nutritious as school meals - they are typically higher in saturated fat, sugar and salt, and often contain foods that can’t be provided in schools, such as sweets and salted snacks.’ Never mind what parents know about their own children’s food preferences, the cost of meals or all the other considerations that go into parental choices about what they feed their kids, the experts have spoken. If all else fails, the packed-lunch police (ie, teachers) will admonish any parents who don’t play by the rules.
Over in Ireland, there has been a bizarre, EU-funded health campaign that takes the notion of ‘fat=disease’ to its logical conclusion. ‘We’re all in the grip of an epidemic’, the campaign ad says. ‘Most of us already have it and we’re rapidly passing it on to others, giving them a higher risk of developing heart disease, diabetes and cancer. It’s overweight, and it’s spreading.’ The message is ‘stop the spread’. This isn’t even a campaign against obesity - it’s against being merely overweight - and it flies in the face of evidence that carrying a wee bit of spare tyre is actually good for you (or at the very least, harmless).
For years, governments and health campaigners have been trying to make us afraid of what we eat, demanding that we only consume prescribed foods in prescribed amounts. It’s worked, to a degree. Even the most sceptical of people will have internalised some of this nonsense, turning their backs on foods they enjoy because they’ve been told that they’re deadly.
But clearly, in health campaigners’ minds, we’re not scared enough. So we must be cajoled and manipulated into further changing our diets, whether through food taxes, lectures about our children or fearmongering adverts. The aim is not, however, to make us slimmer or healthier - which is handy as such nagging and penalising doesn’t seem to make us any thinner anyway. No, the aim is to exercise influence over our lives, to give the powers-that-be a reason to be in power.
Medical professionals and TV documentary makers like to point out how being fat will leave you semi-helpless, struggling to get round on a reinforced mobility scooter. But by encouraging us to worry constantly about our health, it is this endless process of messing with our heads in relation to what we eat that is truly disabling.
Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His new book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, is published by Societas. (Buy this book from Amazon (UK).) He will be speaking at Sheffield’s Off the Shelf festival on Thursday 20 October at 7.30pm. Read his blog here.