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Addictive unhealthy food should be taxed

21 August 2015

FOOD is meant to be enjoyed. At the most basic level, it means survival; beyond that, sustenance and health; finally, it is about hospitality, generosity, and community. What food is not meant to be is addictive.

As the slimmed-down Jamie Oliver calls for a 7p tax on fizzy drinks, I realise that my first addiction was Coca-Cola. It was what I drank when my parents had gin and tonic before Sunday lunch. I remember the fizz of the can opening, the dark silk topped with its golden foam hissing over the ice, and the first delicious tingle of liquid pleasure — amazing: a pure sugar rush.

Then it was Pringles, and the ritual of opening the tube and tearing through the paper top for that first astonishing salty fatty moment — the crunch of the first bite. But I discovered with Pringles the law of diminishing pleasure. However far I worked down the tube, I could never replicate that first bite. The second was not as good as the first, the third was less than the second, and, by the end, there was only sadness mingled with greedy guilt.

Recently, I came across Krispy Kreme doughnuts, and they gave me an even sharper insight into the way our food has become doctored to enslave us in bad habits. I bit into a doughnut (my first ever, the standard variety), and, before I had even swallowed the first mouthful, my brain was firing against a wall with the appallingly urgent question: where is the next one coming from?

There is no secret about why certain foods are addictive. Salt, sugar, and fat do the business. A Horizon programme on different diets demonstrated the way it works. No one will eat a packet of sugar straight off; nor will most people drink a carton of cream. But put the two together, and you get something that you could get hooked on.

It is the combinations that hit a pleasure centre in the brain, and make us cry out for more. Food manufacturers know the secrets, and exploit our weakness, while piously trotting out the rhetoric about the goodness of their products “as part of a balanced diet”. As if. They do not want us to enjoy their product as a treat, but to treat it as a necessity.

Addiction to fatty, sugary, and salty food and drink is costing us a great deal in terms of health and well-being. There is a moral case for taxing these products highly, and, on this issue, I am with Jamie.


The Revd Angela Tilby is the Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and the Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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