Lowering the price of “good” foods would be better than taxing “bad” foods in reducing obesityBMJ 2013; 347 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7038 (Published 27 November 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;347:f7038
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The price differential between “healthy” (good) and “unhealthy” (bad) foods is too complex in the US. Depending on foods, healthy foods are already cheaper than unhealthy foods. Although some bad foods (such as cakes, pastries, pasta) are cheap, most healthy foods are inexpensive (e.g., carrots, peas, beans, oats).
I shop frequently, wait in line, and look at what people buy. Frequently, slim people buy healthier foods than overweight people, and pay less. The reasons are that overweight people buy many prepared foods that cost more than raw vegetables.
Chicken in the US is usually on sale for under $2/lb, pork under $2.5/lb, eggs 0.30$ each (US dollars), a huge box of oatmeal is $2. Healthy meals using vegetables, fruits, lean protein, rice, oats, raw cereals, are inexpensive. Cooking them in microwaves is fast and simple. Bad goods such as fish with heavy crusts, cakes, ice cream, desserts are far more expensive in the quantities one usually eats. Notice my bias based on my research and BMJ.com publications.
Healthy means foods close to their natural state, lean animal, vegetables, fruits, legumes, nuts. Bad means highly processed foods containing highly processed fat (e.g., baked or fried), sweets (concentrated extracts), flour (high in carbs and calories, low in essential fats).
Based on my experience, lowering the price of healthy foods will not make a difference in utilization by overweight people. Carrots are very cheap and healthy, and few people eat them. Same for beans and many green vegetables. Processed desserts are expensive and many people buy them. Lowering the price of carrots to ½ will induce slim people to buy more; the overweight may buy them but not eat them. Lowering the price of healthy foods does not induce people to eat them.
I go to many social events. At many professional society meetings we discussed serving healthy foods. Even when the food is free, people rarely eat the vegetables. Give them chocolate brownies and they kill for them (including scientists at health, nutrition and medical conferences). Put out a rich chocolate cake (very high in fats, trans fats, calories, sweets) and it will be gone in minutes. Several years ago, the Mass. Medical Society used to have an excellent dinner for members at their annual event. They had one of the best chocolate cakes I have ever had. The only problem was that if one did not arrive early and got a piece, it was quickly gone. Same for other desserts. The supply of free vegetables never emptied.
Physicians, corporate executives and senior government officials can afford healthy foods, yet in the past 20 years I have noticed that the percent of overweight professionals (and their diameter) increased dramatically (based on attendance at professional conferences).
We need to include in the price of food the true cost, including environmental damage, energy, waste, etc. Today many of these costs are subsidized. There is a price point at which people will stop buying so many calories from “bad” foods. Furthermore, we need to reduce taxpayer subsidies to treat the consequences of excessive eating.
In a true merge of conservative, liberal and religious approaches, purchase costs should reflect true costs and discourage killing people.
Competing interests: No competing interests