Notify me

Sign up to be informed about FOE activities, and receive our newsletter.

* indicates required

Don't worry; we won't abuse your email address. Read our privacy statement.

NZ: Appetite for destruction – book review

Appetite for Destruction

In their latest book, Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons note that poor nutrition has supplanted tobacco use as the leading preventable cause of poor health and early death. They then argue the Government needs to apply a similar approach to unhealthy food to that used against tobacco. This includes regulation, advertising bans, and taxation.

The book begins by making the case against what the authors call ‘fake food’ – the energy-dense and nutrient-poor products now dominating supermarket shelves. Food our ancestors wouldn’t recognise.

Consuming fake food, they argue, leads to poor health by providing far too many calories and not enough of the nutrients that help our bodies function. The result is the obesity epidemic together with rising levels of non-communicable diseases including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, strokes and some cancers.

To turn things around, Morgan and Simmons see the need to replace fake food with higher consumption of fruit and veges, and a shift to sources of lean protein such as seafood and poultry.

Making this change will not be easy. In their chapter “Why is healthy eating so hard?” the authors see lack of information, hormones, genes and our environment as all conspiring to make it easy to consume fake food. It’s wrong, they say, to think that the problem can be solved through greater willpower.

They suggest a wide range of interventions by central government aimed at promoting a shift to more healthy eating including:

  • cooking classes in schools
  • regulation of school food
  • considering health in the Resource Management Act
  • banning advertising to children
  • mandatory food labelling
  • food vouchers for fruit and veges
  • and a tax on unhealthy food.

Costs for the full menu, they estimate, would be a bit over $300 million, with food vouchers by far the largest item. Revenue from taxing unhealthy food would be around $1 billion – more than 3 times the costs.

The authors’ menu is not just a wish list. Every item is supported by evidence-based arguments developed throughout the book.

I’m particularly impressed by the book’s proposal for linking food labelling and tax. The authors argue for front-of-pack  labelling that interprets nutrition information for consumers. They note that this will mean some judgment calls that the food industry won’t like.

“Tough bikkies, fake food makers,” they write, ” this is about consumer understanding.” (p222)

The authors summarise a number of possible front-of-pack options and see the need for some serious New Zealand research before an option is selected, be it a traffic light system, the Australian health star rating system or something else.

I believe that, following the path taking by our public health colleagues in Australia in supporting the star system and its endorsement by food ministers there, a traffic light system is no longer a feasible option for New Zealand.

Engaging with the Australians in ensuring that the star system is as good as it can be is the path I think we should take. It makes huge sense, given our interlocked food markets, to use the one system in both countries.

Morgan and Simmons point out a useful advantage of the stars: it fits neatly with their proposal to tax fake food. Ideally, they write, a tax should align with the approach taken on labelling.

If star labelling was implemented, they propose that a tax (they suggest 20%) could simply be applied to products with star ratings at the unhealthy end of the spectrum. This, they argue, would effectively tax fake foods while generally avoiding good food, and would be easy to administer. It does, of course, assume that the labelling system was mandatory. The combined effect of both star ratings and tax, the authors argue, would provide a huge incentive for fake food makers to reformulate their products.

Another aspect of the authors’ recipe for interventions I like is the inclusion of both a tax on unhealthy food and targeted vouchers for healthy food. Properly designed, such a system could help counter the financial impact of taxing fake food on those with low incomes.

The authors have no time for ‘nanny state’ arguments against their proposed government interventions to promote healthy eating. They are strongest on this when they discuss interventions affecting children, particularly food marketing. There are times, they write, when children need nannies.

More generally, they argue, the question is not “whether we occasionally need state intervention on private liberties to improve public outcomes … [but] what level and type of intrusion is appropriate.” (p185). Their case is strengthened by reference to state regulation of the financial sector in response to widespread harm to investors, as well as the acceptance of increasingly severe restrictions on the tobacco industry.

Morgan and Simmons are economists, and see themselves as lay people writing for lay people (Preface). The thorough and sensible approach they bring to non-economic topics such as diets and nutrition is a tribute to the research and expert consultation behind the book. Here much of the credit lies with Geoff Simmons.

The only thing that struck me as missing was a failure to point out that children’s viewing hours on television, during which food advertising is restricted, do not in fact cover the times when the highest number of children are watching.

This is wonderfully useful and timely book. It’s part of Gareth Morgan’s quest to inform himself and publish his conclusions on important topical issues. As such it has clout not available to a public health professional writing in this area. I hope the book gets the widespread attention and readership it deserves.

John White

October 2013

Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons, Appetite for destruction: food – the good, bad and the fatal. The Public Interest Publishing Company Ltd, 2013.

Published on November 1, 2013 in New Zealand news