The price of unhealthy processed food needs to rise by at least a fifth, if New Zealand is to tackle diet-related problems that threaten to be just as bad for our health as smoking, Gareth Morgan says.
Morgan, an economist, public policy analyst and philanthropist, was giving a lecture to the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, about his new book, Appetite for Destruction.
Poor diet was now the “number one killer” in New Zealand, he said. Portion sizes had risen 30% in 50 years, and people ate far too much processed food, which was “energy dense and nutrient poor”. This was affecting people’s health right across the population, not just among those “who on the surface appear to be overweight”.
Morgan said: “Processing has fatally changed the balance of nutrients and energy … This is just as much a problem for [food sold in] supermarkets as fast food outlets.”
Arguing that people will eat 70% more snacks if they are readily available, he said this energy rich food was “just everywhere. It is very hard to avoid and we are not adapted to deal with that environment. It’s very difficult to get through the Koru lounge without stuffing your face.”
While some argued that exercise was equally important, only 20% of the rise in, for instance, obesity could be explained by changes in rates of exercise, he said. It would take an hour of “walking fast” to work off the effects of consuming just one bottle of a sports drink.
The scale of the problem meant drastic action was needed, Morgan said. “We have a smoking-sized problem and we need smoking-sized solutions.”
Part of the solution was restricting the supply of unhealthy food. That included items such as high-sugar cereals, he said, noting testing had shown that the sweetest cereal on sale in New Zealand was 41% sugar.
The cereal aisle in supermarkets “should have a rope across it. It’s desert food, most of it.”
More generally, he said, New Zealand needed to increase the relative price of unhealthy processed foods “by at least 20% – and use the revenue to bring down the price of whole food. Therefore you mitigate the income effects. If you close the loop on the revenue, it shouldn’t affect the poor.”
Morgan also argued for “pretty simple” food labelling to complement the complex dietary information currently provided on food packaging. All food should come with one of three labels: “eat this often”, “eat this sometimes” or “try to avoid this”.