The government is being urged to impose a tax on processed foods containing excessive calories to help tackle obesity.
The campaign group Action on Sugar and Action on Salt said a calorie levy on all energy dense processed foods that meet an agreed criteria would help encourage product reformulation and reduce fat, saturated fat and sugar.
They are proposing a levy similar to the Soft Drinks Industry Levy which has resulted in significant reformulation of sugary soft drinks since it was introduced in April 2018.
The proposal is likely to find an influential opponent in new prime minister Boris Johnson who has committed to putting a stop on new ‘sin’ taxes and reviewing the effectiveness of existing taxes.
The campaigners said the levy would ensure companies are held to account if they make processed unhealthy food with excessive calories as part of a comprehensive set of measures to encourage them to develop healthier, lower calorie products.
“The UK Soft Drinks Industry Levy has been remarkable and unique in that it allows for significant product reformulation by manufacturers in order to avoid paying the levy,” said Graham MacGregor, professor of cardiovascular medicine at Queen Mary University of London and chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt. “The same could be achieved in creating a levy to reduce excess calories but we need a firm commitment from HM Treasury and the Department of Health and Social Care to make this a reality and to implement a robust evaluation system to fill in the evidence gaps.”
McGregor said proceeds from the levy should be invested back in a more comprehensive approach to prevent obesity in children.
Food businesses have already been told to cut calories in their products by 20% by 2024 to help tackle the UK’s obesity crisis. Products covered in the Public Health England (PHE) run programme include ready meals, pizzas, meat products and meat alternatives, savoury snack products, sauces and dressings, prepared sandwiches, composite salads and other on the go foods including meal deals. Foods in the sugar reduction programme are not covered.
Specific category guidelines for the calorie reduction programme are due to be published in mid-2019.
The campaigners said having two separate reformulation programmes to tackle the obesity epidemic was “illogical”. They gave the example of cakes and biscuits that are included in the sugar reduction programme but not in the calorie reduction programme, despite them being categories that contribute to excess calorie intake from sugar as well as fat.
They are calling for cakes and biscuits, along with other sweet and fatty categories such as chocolate confectionery, ice creams, puddings, chocolate spreads, morning goods and milk-based drinks, to be included in the calorie reduction programme.