Don't tax sugar, tax these foods

Monday’s episode of Four Corners on the sugar industry brought to light the full extent of Australia’s obesity epidemic, and has highlighted the importance of government intervention in protecting public health against the profit-driven motives of the food industry and Big Sugar.

Australia currently has no obesity strategy, yet over 60 per cent of the Australian population is overweight or obese, and that number looks set to rise to 80 per cent by 2025.

Don’t think about sugar, think about processed foods.

While the causes of obesity are complex, there is no doubt that drastic changes to our diets over the past 50 years have had a significant impact. Particularly, the increase in availability (and associated decrease in cost) of processed foods high in saturated fats and added sugars, and low in vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, and proteins, which is becoming a growing problem not only in wealthy developed nations like Australia, but also in developing countries where threats to food security heighten the reliance on food corporations as both a nutrition and income source.

In 2016, this global pandemic prompted the development of the NOVA classifications by the World Public Health Nutrition Assocation. A name not an acronym, NOVA categorises foods according to their level of processing. Foods are given classifications ranging from unprocessed or minimally processed foods through to what are known as ultra-processed foods and drinks.

These ultra-processed foods (UPFs) are relatively new in terms of the human diet and nutrition. Yet, since their development in the latter-half of the twentieth century, they have been gradually growing in ubiquity. Today, they account for more than 50 per cent of the packaged food available in Australian and New Zealand supermarkets.

Defined as “industrial formulations typically with five or more and usually many ingredients”, UPFs are “substances not commonly used in culinary preparations”, and contain additives “whose purpose is to imitate sensory qualities” of natural foods such as fruit.

They are, to put it as bluntly as Professor Carlos Monteiro from the University of São Paulo does, “intrinsically unhealthy”. In fact, given their incredibly high energy density and shockingly low nutritional value, UPFs are not only intrinsically unhealthy – they are difficult to even classify as food.

Disturbingly, the collection of studies published on the subject in the January 2018 edition of Public Health Nutrition, suggest these ultra-processed foods are some of the fastest growing in our diets. In the UK their consumption currently comprises more than 50 per cent of the average household diet, and the proportion in Australia is growing.

Comprising some of the most popular supermarket items – chips, biscuits, frozen meals and the like – UPFs are often marketed using health and nutrition claims, common food marketing techniques, and packaging that appeals to children.

Off the supermarket shelves, and perhaps equally as worrying, is how they are normalised using language popularised by the body positive movement to negate claims of distinctions between "good" and "bad" food.

While the body positive movement has critiqued these distinctions in order to achieve the positive aims of supporting those struggling with weight and body image issues, and helping individuals who may struggle with normal eating practices, their appropriation by those with a vested financial interest in increasing sales, ubiquity, and normality of UPFs represents a disturbing new ball game for the average consumer.

Unlike the distinctions critiqued by the body positive movement, UPFs are beyond discretionary or treat foods. Marketed and consumed as a fundamental part of an individual’s diet, widely available, and packed with sugars, fats, and additives linked to addictive and craving behaviour, they are in fact becoming one of our main sources of nutrition.

But UPFs are undeniably "bad foods": energy-dense, but lacking any meaningful content of vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, or protein. These products contribute to both weight gain and the obesity epidemic, as well as to the problem of malnutrition.

Without a national obesity strategy in place, Australians are left exposed to the multiple health problems and associated national economic costs that such foods herald. Although, there are two initiatives related to this national public health crisis – the Healthy Food Partnership and the Health Star Rating System – both have shortcomings and industry-backed limitations.

There is such a thing as bad food, and in the face of its growing ubiquity our governments and our policy makers should value our health above the profit-fuelled donations of the food industry.

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