Warning - may cause loss of appetite!

Though most have never heard of it, Public Health for England (PHE) runs a programme which is literally deciding what we should or should not be eating.

The concept is nothing new – governments attempting to dictate what individuals put into their own bodies – however, Josie Appleton’s recent paper on PHE’s ‘reformulation scheme’ shines the light on a more recent victim…the food industry.

In a nutshell, the reformulation scheme aims to reduce the amount of sugar, salt and calories found in foodstuffs sold across the UK, as well as cutting portion sizes. The scheme appears to be an attempt on the government’s behalf to tackle the nationwide obesity ‘crisis’, with the UK currently ranked as Europe’s 3rd most obese nation (World Health Organisation). However, the programme is problematic in nature for several reasons.

Firstly, as Appleton also understands it, the scheme is worryingly paternalistic. This is because freedom of choice is removed from the consumer under the guise that PHE knows what’s best, reducing the autonomy of the consumer as a decision-maker. This results in shifts in the market based on pressure from PHE rather than a change in tastes or preferences, leaving ordinary people out of the equation. The result of this is clear: the government interfering with one of the most private decisions one makes, what to eat.

Although one could argue that despite the wide variety of health-conscious and natural products readily available, these tend to be more expensive and more time-consuming to prepare than ‘unhealthy’ alternatives or pre-made meals (and not to mention, less tasty!). Therefore, the option to eat healthily is not accessible to all and policies such as the ‘reformulation scheme’ arguably aim to combat this disparity. In fact, obesity disproportionately affects those from lower-income households in the UK (Carl Baker). However, one could also argue that these schemes also negatively impact these same individuals since the diminishing portions rarely drop in price, and therefore consumers will spend 25% more, despite the smaller product (Josie Appleton: 31). Therefore, ceteris paribus, it seems best to leave the choice with the consumer.

It is also worth noting that the ‘reformulation scheme’ and alike are impractical and verging on the absurd due to being highly bureaucratic. This is because the targets they set are unrealistic, the categories assigned fail to account for natural sweeteners (for example) and are assigned arbitrarily. This underlines the inadequacy of said form of food regulation, and the merits of leaving the choice with the consumer, particularly since such generalised schemes will never be able to cater for the myriad of preferences and contexts which motivate consumers to choose certain products.

Finally, a fundamental problem of the ‘reformulation scheme’ is its function over taste approach. Whilst the functionality of food cannot, of course, be ignored, it does not do justice to the cultural relevance of food. In reality, consumers will almost always seek a specific product for their taste as that is what ultimately differentiates them from their competitors. The role of food is therefore not limited to sustenance, as PHE’s myopic view would suggest.

With government taking a seat at the dinner table through such invasive policy, one does wonder what lies ahead. For example, if vegetarianism and veganism continue to rise in popularity, should consumers expect government schemes to eventually ban all meat and animal-based products, or perhaps to have these sold in bland packaging and in limited supply? Such changes in policy should not appear dystopian considering that the EAT-Lancet Commission on Food, Planet and Health has made similar recommendations in several publications, demonstrating a similar sentiment to that of PHE.

If anything, the government should focus on promoting a healthy lifestyle by continuing to improve its Personal, Social and Health Education (PSHE) lessons, and thus promoting education over prohibition.

Chiara Buttiglione is a research intern at the Adam Smith Institute.