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Would Food Taxes Help Some Cut Back On Calories?

February 19, 2011

A new small study suggests that people may be generally unlikely to buy high-calorie food if there is a tax on it — though it might not matter to everyone.

According to a recent Reuters report, researchers conducted a computer-based experiment using 178 US college students and found that students generally “bought” fewer lunchtime calories when sugary and fatty foods came with a 25+ percent tax.

The exception came when calorie-conscious eaters were given calorie information on their lunch options — the tax didn’t seem to affect their decisions of what food to eat.

Taxes on junk food and greater openness about calorie information have both been promoted as better ways to help consumers limit their intake of less-healthy foods — and, hopefully, find ways to keep their weight in a healthy range.

In the United States, supporters of taxes on junk foods and sugary beverages argue that it would not only discourage people from buying them, but could also help reduce the $145 billion cost of treating ailments related to obesity and unhealthy eating.

Policymakers have made greater strides in pushing for restaurants and vendors to be upfront about calorie information. In 2008, New York City became the first US city to mandate that fast food and coffee chains put calorie info on their menus.

In 2010, the federal healthcare reform law set national labeling requirements for certain restaurants and vending machines.

But controversy has surrounded just how effective these measures have been, or could be.

One study released on Tuesday found that NYC’s law has so far done little to alter the eating habits of the city’s teens and children, especially at fast-food chains.

The current study, however, suggests that the effectiveness of junk food taxes might partially depend on whether calorie information is given or not — and if the consumer is calorie-conscious or not.

Researchers, led by Dr. Janneke Giesen of Maastricht University in the Netherlands, got 178 US college participants to choose a hypothetical lunch from a computer menu on three different occasions.

Each time, the researchers raised prices on high-calorie items — first by 25 percent and then 50 percent. About half of the students were given calorie information at all lunches, while the rest were not.

Overall, students tended to order fewer calories when a tax for junk food was in place. The average calorie intake dropped by 100 to 300 depending on the tax in place, the team found.

The only students who did not respond to the price hikes were those who were already watching their diets and were given calorie information. They ate fewer calories than their peers without any food tax, and showed little change in their eating when taxes were added.

“The most important finding of our study is that a tax of 25 percent or more on (high-calorie) foods makes nearly everyone buy fewer calories,” Giesen told Reuters Health in an email.

Giesen, whose results are published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, said calorie information might overshadow price, especially for those who are diet-conscious. “However, if one wants to help people in general to prevent caloric over-consumption,” said Giesen. “Then our results indicate that imposing a high tax on (high-calorie) food items is much more efficacious.”

Dr. Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, said the study is comparable to larger experiments that suggest food taxes could work.

He pointed to a recent Harvard study in which researchers added a 35-percent tax increase to sugary sodas sold in the cafeteria at Brigham & Women’s Hospital in Boston. Researchers there found that sales of the sodas dropped by 26 percent, and that people tended to replace those drinks with diet soda or coffee.

In contrast, an educational campaign that used signs that recommended that people cut back on sugary soft drinks failed to make a difference in sales.

Giesen said more studies are needed to see whether smaller tax increases of ten percent — which is seen as more politically viable — would influence people’s buying habits.

Groups like the American Beverage Association and anti-tax activities like Americans Against Food Taxes argue that there is no evidence that junk food taxes will fight the obesity epidemic in America. They also emphasize that such taxes would also unjustifiably burden lower-income families.

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