Linking food costs to nutritional value may benefit health

Research suggests that the introduction of taxes on less healthy foods, such as sugary drinks and foods high in saturated fat, and subsidies for healthy food, such as fruit and vegetables, could significantly improve peoples' health.

Helen Eyles (University of Auckland, New Zealand) and colleagues carried out a systematic review of 32 modeling studies that explored the possibilities of different food pricing strategies on diet and health outcomes between 1990 and 2011.

Overall, 30 studies assessed the effects of changes in food pricing on dietary outcomes - 17 evaluated the impact of food taxes, six the effect of subsidies, and seven a combination of the two. In addition, 19 studies assessed the impact of changes in food pricing on health and disease outcomes - 15 evaluated effects of taxation, three assessed subsidies, and four a combination of the two.

As reported in PLoS Medicine, the researchers estimated that each 1% increase (via taxation) in the price of products containing saturated fat would lead to a 0.02% reduction in energy intake from saturated fat.

Similarly, a 10% increase in the price of carbonated soft drinks could reduce consumption by 1-24%.

Regarding subsidies, Eyles and team calculated that a 10% decrease in the price of fruits and vegetables could increase their consumption by 2-8%, although they concede that this type of subsidy may result in "compensatory purchasing" with people buying less of other healthy foods such as fish, and more unhealthy foods such as those with a high sugar content.

"Based on modeling studies, taxes on carbonated drinks and saturated fat and subsidies on fruits and vegetables are associated with beneficial dietary change, with the potential for improved health," write the authors.

"It must be noted that the impact of any given food tax or subsidy is likely to differ by country depending on factors such as the type of tax system implemented, health status, co-existent marketing, cultural norms, expendable income, and the social role of food," they concede.

"Given the limitations of the current evidence, robust evaluations must be planned when food pricing policies are implemented by governments."

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