The maddest nanny-state ideas of 2019

From inedible eco-diets to bans on snacking, public-health campaigners outdid themselves this year.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics UK

The nanny state has had a bit of a quiet year in the UK. With all the shenanigans over Brexit, it seems our parliamentarians haven’t really had the time to devote to making serious new dents in our personal freedoms. Given that, in recent years, we’ve seen the introduction of all sorts of bans, regulations and tax hikes on tobacco, minimum prices for booze north of the border, and sugary drinks taxes, maybe it was time to take a breather.

But that hasn’t stopped the public-health wonks, campaigners and academics from floating ever-more stupid and illiberal ideas about how our lives can be micromanaged. And if our behaviour can’t be changed, the authorities will simply apply pressure to the companies who make the products we consume.

Christmas time is always one for the old favourites, and one of the classics is food reformulation. This is the idea that if manufacturers would only tweak the recipes for our favourite foods, it would do wonders for the fight against obesity. Some things are (relatively) easy to tweak, like cutting the amount of salt in biscuits or crisps – up to a point. But other changes are easy to notice. You can’t easily replace sugar with artificial sweetener without anyone noticing. The likes of aspartame simply taste different and have nothing like the bulk of sugar. Diet drinks taste different to full-sugar drinks and you either tolerate that difference in flavour or you don’t. As long as you have the option, it really is a matter of taste.

But as AG Barr, maker of Scottish soft-drink favourite Irn-Bru, has found out, denying your customers that choice altogether in an effort to avoid the sugary drinks tax can seriously hurt your bottom line. The reduced-sugar version of Irn-Bru has been a flop. No wonder the firm suddenly discovered an old, very sugary recipe to flog as a ‘limited edition’ over Christmas and New Year.

Getting Whitehall involved in how our food is made is, er, a recipe for disaster (pun intended), as Josie Appleton found out while writing the report, Cooking For Bureaucrats. She notes that calorie-reduction targets have been proposed for a bizarre range of foods, including ‘olive ciabatta, boxed salads, sushi, bao buns, vegetable crisps, protein balls, yoghurt-covered raisins, croutons, braised cabbage, mushy peas, pesto, hollandaise sauce, quinoa (with additions), spelt and barley (with additions), guacamole, pease pudding, and prepared salads’. Hardly the most obviously unhealthy foods.

The real upshot of food reformulation is food that tastes worse – or comes in smaller portions because changing the recipe is just impractical. So, well done all concerned at making our lives just that little bit worse for practically zero impact on calorie intakes or obesity.

Another public-health crowdpleaser is the advertising ban. Earlier this year, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, promised to ban adverts for ‘junk’ food on Transport for London (TfL). But within weeks, we had news of collateral damage. Farmdrop, an organic-food home-delivery firm, were told by TfL bosses to cut out parts of an ad containing such treats as bacon, butter and jam. It even had to confirm that other foods featured, including shortbread, juice, biscuits, yoghurt and elderflower, were in compliance with the new rules. Advertising bans may be stupid, irrational and a restraint on free expression – but at least TfL’s rules have the merit of bone-headed consistency.

In 2019, we had the chance to examine the merits of nanny-state policies introduced in the previous year. For example, the stats on Scotland’s policy of minimum pricing for alcohol, introduced in May 2018, are now available and show alcohol sales are down. However, that seems little different to the long-term trend in Scotland. Initial estimates of mortality seems to show a decline – but there was also a decline in England.

Clearly, the policy has had either zero effect, or the effect is so marginal as to be indistinguishable from long-term trends. Minimum pricing has been bad news for anyone who likes a cheap drink and good news for booze shops just across the border in England. But it’s doing nothing (or at least, vanishingly little) to prevent booze-related deaths.

But if minimum pricing is pointless, that’s nothing next to the maddest of madcap public-health ideas: the diet proposed in January by the EAT-Lancet Commission, bringing together the biggest moonbats from the worlds of public health and climate-change activism – what I called at the time the ‘Avengers Assembled of food bollocks’. Our flatulent, eco-friendly food future should be built, we were told, on grains, fruit and vegetables. These could be supplemented by a small amount of milk and cheese, but that’s about it. The diets suggests just seven grams of pork or beef per day (a quarter of an ounce in old money). Luckily, there is the option of a whole ounce (28 grams) of chicken per day and a wondrous 1.5 eggs per week each. The potato ration would be just 50 grams per day.

Of course, this is the most echoing of echo chambers, a committee of the great and good cooking up dietary drivel between themselves. No normal person would even attempt to eat such a diet. The danger is that having set the mark for utter dietary nonsense, politicians might be persuaded to accept a diet with slightly fewer restrictions as somehow rational.

Finally, a word for those we have lost this year. No, not an obituary, but a fond farewell to the retired chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, aka the ‘Nanny-in-Chief’. As Christopher Snowdon has pointed out, Davies was appointed in 2010 and was, for a few years, relatively sensible. But after half a decade of pickling in the asylum-like world of public health, she started coming out with statements about how she worried about breast cancer every time she had a glass of wine. Her parting shot on retiring was to call for a ban on pretty much all eating and drinking on public transport. It was for the benefit of everyone that she was put out to pasture.

While Christmas at Chez Davies may be more paltry than poultry, to everyone else – a merry Christmas and a happy, indulgent New Year!

Rob Lyons is science and technology director at the Academy of Ideas and a spiked columnist.

Picture by: Getty.

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Tamara Raetz

23rd February 2020 at 5:26 pm

“Health by stealth” makes generalized assumptions that one diet suits all, but further study of the human genome is proving that this is not true. For example, due to different MTHFR genes governing the methylation cycle, some people thrive on diets high in folate, while others are made very ill by green veggies. Some people actually need more sugar in their diets, surprisingly; diabetes is a spectrum with patients at both ends. Rather than legislate food producers to conform to a one-size-fits-all diet, it would be more helpful for government to require simple label categorizing and enable consumers to choose “heath on the shelf.” We already know the approx. macros for losing weight, maintaining weight, and gaining weight. Physicians and scientists discovered the macros for losing weight years ago.* If we must generalize for the sake of efficiency, why not require manufacturers to label products with a 1 (lose weight), 2 (maintain weight), or 3 (gain weight), and provide these macros to the public as well as to food producers? Something similar was done in the days of food rationing; this would utilize market forces to induce manufacturers to reformulate their products for informed consumers. People would still be free to remain obese or emaciated, if they felt so compelled (thus helping their doctors identify underlying physical or mental health conditions), but would be given the option of making healthy food choices at the point of purchase with the ability to tailor their purchasing to their own bodies’ actual needs without being publicly shamed. Those who are underweight would have an easier time shopping as well as those who have reached their goal weight. I would think the NHS would be all over this kind of government assistance to help patients achieve healthier bodies; the costs would be minimal and freedom of choice maintained.

*Eat five or six 110 calorie snacks 2.5 to 3 hours apart plus one 300 calorie meal. Each snack contains 3g fat, 11g carbs, 11g protein. The meal consists of 5-7 oz. lean protein and 3 vegetables (any color), with macros of 15g fat, 15g carbs, 25g protein.

Michael Gilday

31st December 2019 at 11:34 am

What I find in all the food a drink puritanism is a lack at time of good science. The research starts with the premise it must be fat or sugar or salt or red meat. Once a particular causation factor is anecdotally determined, ‘it must be fat intake’; then they fit the research to meet this assumption.
So, after years of castigating dairy produce it turnout that dairy is not the issue re heart disease once research is done properly. This applies across the board where public health is concerned. Monosodium Glutamate was targeted and years later it was found the science behind this was poorly applied.
Unfortunately, we do not produce detailed analysis of food consumption as is done in the USA. But one thing that these American figures show is obesity has risen whilst sugar consumption has declined. Yet I know an American who has lost 10 stone recently from cutting out Coca Cola from his diet. But is this directly due to the sugar content in his diet or a reduction in his calorific intake. Obesity has genetic factors is the conclusion of 20 years of research carried by Dr Giles Yeo and his colleagues at Cambridge Neuroscience Department. See the interesting recent lecture at the Royal Institution .
We rely on manufactured processed food stuff far more that ever in our history. One obvious sign is that the rise in obesity correlates to this trend. Would anyone eating ice cream consider doing so if they realised it was made from palm oil or butter as opposed to milk or cream as one assumes it is made from or is it people don’t care. Confectionary to maintain the prices low is no longer made from traditional ingredients but contains cheap oils and chemical for shelf life and to ensure cheapness. Our mothers baked wholesome cake in the past and these was not anything like to obesity as there is today. How much is processed foods to blame for the increase in diabetes and obesity. Is it all down to sugar or is it more down to a combination of product blends used? Is it really the result of genetics and processed foods?
Alcohol in excess damages body organs like the liver, pancreas and brain, alcoholics evidence of these problems. FACT: the intake of alcohol in continuous large quantities is detrimental to health. If you look back 50 years mining and other working-class communities drank mild. Mild was 2.2% alcohol and it was not uncommon the have a night consuming 5 to 8 pints and by the end of the night be slightly drunk, but still able to work the next day. Today beers and lagers are generally 5% alcohol upwards, is there a correlation between alcohol consumption and more violence on the streets or is this analogous. Would it not make far more sense to reduce the level of alcohol by volume in beers, lagers and alcopops to more acceptable levels?
What seems to be the case is a combination of poor science where an assumption is made then rather through bad reasoning and medical trials that do not present valid data, which leads to analogies becoming facts. If nitrates in the bacon process are the potential cause cancer, then ban nitrates. It has been proven nitrates do not increase shelf life, but keep them meats colour. So, find an alternative rather than suggesting people stop eating bacon. One could go on forever on this stupidity, associated with public health mantras.

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