Professor: Unhealthy food ‘heavily subsidised by EU’

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Low income households are increasingly turning to cheap packaged and fatty food, warns Jaap C. Seidel, a nutrition and health professor, inisisting that EU agricultural subsidies should to be turned round to make fruit and vegetables more affordable.

Jaap C. Seidel is a professor of nutrition and health and director of the Institute for Health Sciences in the Netherlands. 

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Does low socio-economic status (SES) de facto lead to obesity?

Not necessarily, because low SES in developing countries is associated with thinness and extreme poverty as well as high physical activity. For instance, in many parts of Africa, the lowest SES is leading to under-nutrition, malnutrition and diseases, in particular infectious diseases. 

In our societies, everybody has some level of income and even the people below the poverty line are well off compared to many of the global poor. In these circumstances, and this is the case in most EU countries, low income will actually lead to poor choice in diet and also low levels of physical activity and they are associated with obesity. 

Why does low income lead to poor choice in our societies?

It has partly to do with the prices of unhealthy food, which are much lower than the prices of healthier foods like fruits and vegetables, wholegrain cereals and lean meat and fish, which are very expensive products. Cheap products are often those with added oils, fats, sugar and salt. So people without proper knowledge and education about what healthy nutrition is – and with low income – will choose the poorer quality foods. 

Can marketing of poor quality food products affect consumer choice?

Absolutely. These products are marketed partly because a lot of the packaged, added salt and fatty foods are heavily subsidised by the EU agricultural ministries and others, as well as by the companies which all make money out of processed food. 

It is very difficult to make money out of fresh foods because of the associated costs of transportation and preservation. So what you could do is either increase the taxation of the unhealthy foods and make them more expensive, or reduce the cost of the healthy foods, like subsidies in fruits and vegetables. There are actually many options with which you can manipulate the price and availability of foods. 

How does the EU subsidise unhealthy food?

We are not only subsiding our own economies – usually the meat and dairy production, areas which have a very strong lobby as well as olive oil and other high energy-tense foods – but we also subsidise the economies of the third world, where we get the most of our food from. In these countries, most of the subsidies go to the production of sugar, corn, cane sugar, tobacco and alcohol as well as saturated fats such as palm oil and coconut oil plantations in Asia. 

The current increase in food prices will make cereals and starches, currently the basis of healthy nutrition for low SES all over the world, too expensive for them. What is the future of nutrition for the poor?

You see already in some of the developing countries such as Mexico and Brazil that as the prices of corn and soya increase because they are being used as biofuels – it limits the healthy choices of the individuals in those countries even more than is already the case. Staple foods which are producing healthy habits in traditional ways are becoming much more expensive and will be replaced by packaged foods, which are usually full of added sugar, fats and salt. 

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