The National Food Strategy calls for the introduction of the world’s first Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax, with some of the money being used to expand free school meals and support the diets of those living in the most deprived neighbourhoods.
A £3 per kg tax on sugar and a £6 per kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses would incentivise manufacturers to reformulate their recipes or reduce their portion sizes, the report says.
It reads: “The CEOs of major food companies have told us privately that they cannot make these changes without Government intervention. They need a level playing field if they are to start making their products healthier, otherwise the competition will simply move in and undercut them.”
The way appetite malfunctions in the modern world has created a huge market for unhealthy foods, the report’s authors explain.
“We have a predilection for calorie-dense foods, which means food companies invest more time and money creating these foods, which makes us eat more of them and expands the market, which leads to more investment, which makes us eat more.
“Company bosses do not dare to stop investing in these foods, in case they lose their competitive edge. Both consumers and food companies are stuck in a reinforcing feedback loop – a Junk Food Cycle. The results are dire.”
The average Briton now consumes five times the volume of crisps than they did in 1972 and eat 1.5 times the amount of breakfast cereal than they did in 1970 – with breakfast cereals becoming much more sugary over the same period, the report says.
Similar shifts in behaviour have been repeated across the whole spectrum of our national diet. In 1980, on average 57% of a household’s grocery budget was spent on ingredients for home-cooked food. By 2000, this had fallen to 35%, while the share of processed foods which required little preparation rose from 26% to 45%.
Poor diet contributes to an estimated 64,000 deaths every year in England. More than half of over-45s are living with diet-related health conditions.
By 2035/36, type 2 diabetes is projected to cost the NHS £15 billion a year, or one and a half times as much as cancer does today.
“Halting this trajectory is the single biggest thing we can do to protect the future of our health service. Education and willpower are not enough. We cannot escape this vicious circle without rebalancing the financial incentives within the food system,” the report concludes.
One poll suggests that 63% of people in the UK would like the Sugary Drinks Levy to be expanded to include other sugary foods such as sweets and biscuits.
The authors say their modelling suggests the proposed new tax would lower the average sugar intake by 4–10g per person per day, and the salt intake by 0.2–0.6g per person per day, reducing the average calories eaten per person per day by 15–38 kcal.
According to the UK’s expert group on calorie reduction, this could completely halt weight gain at a population level – which would require an average reduction of 24kcal per person per day.
The tax could raise up to £3.4 billion per year for the Treasury and should be introduced in a 2024 Finance Bill, the report recommends.
It is possible, the report warns, that the price of some products – particularly those, such as value jam, that are almost entirely made from sugar – will rise.
“We do not want to place added financial pressures on those households that are already struggling to put food on the table. We especially want to avoid the possible unintended consequence that hard-pressed shoppers end up cutting back on healthy foods.”
To prevent this, the report proposes a series of measures to get fresh food and ingredients to low-income households with children, including expanding free school meals and extending the Holiday Activities and Food programme for the next three years – to support children during both term time and holidays.
It also suggests an expansion of the Healthy Start scheme to support the diets of young children before they start school and the trial of a “Community Eatwell” Programme that enables GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to people suffering, or at risk of suffering, from diet-related illness or food insecurity.
It puts the average annual cost to Government to deliver this recommendation over the next three years at £1.1 billion.
In response to the report, restaurateur Bill Granger said: “The culture of food in Britain has changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years, and it has been amazing to witness. But it’s time for the next step.
“We all hate the idea of anyone telling us what to eat, and it never ever works. But simple measures like a sugar and salt tax that reflects the true cost of these foods will help us as food producers to look at our recipes and adjust them with more sustainable and healthier alternatives.”
Food and Drink Federation chief scientific officer Kate Halliwell said: “These taxes will not drive reformulation. Food and drink manufacturers have been voluntarily lowering fat, salt and sugars in recipes for decades as well as reducing portion size, but it takes time to change much-loved products.
“Furthermore, the Government’s proposed advertising ban and promotions restrictions would limit the ways in which companies can let families know about exciting new options.
“It is hard to view the proposals that the taxes raised will pay for additional health plans, with anything but scepticism. The same promise was made ahead of the introduction of the soft drinks industry levy, but was quietly dropped shortly afterwards.”