It's not just desserts

Posted on September 30, 2016

According to reports this morning, the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, told a meeting of over 100 food companies yesterday that intervention was required in our eating habits because 'going out is no longer a treat' and we're all getting too fat as a result. Hunt threatened to 'name and shame' companies that didn't play along with the government's childhood obesity strategy by cutting sugar content by 20 per cent. Since simply removing 20 per cent of the sugar from food would radically alter the taste and texture, at least some of that reduction will have to be achieved by cutting portion sizes.

Until now, the emphasis has been on producers of food - like confectionery, cakes, biscuits and sugary drinks - bought in shops. But the government is now making clear that restaurants like McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Gourmet Burger Kitchen will be expected to follow suit, too. Every kind of sweet treat from every kind of supplier will now come under scrutiny from Whitehall. In effect, the government has now decided that we're getting too much food for our money. For our own good, it will pressure food producers, takeaway joints, restaurants and pubs to serve us less.

This is an unwarranted attack on freedom to choose what we eat. It's quite easy to regulate how much sugar we consume. We can choose different products that contain less sugar, pick a portion size that suits us or simply not clear our plates. There is no mystery here. We should have the right to make those decisions and take responsibility for the consequences of them, too. (And that includes ignoring the wild scare stories about how what we eat is killing us.) Yet the government is insulting our intelligence by suggesting that we can't make such decisions for ourselves.

Just a few years ago, the idea of the government deciding how much we eat would have been regarded as ludicrous. Yet politicians are so desperate to be seen to be 'doing something' about obesity that they want to make chocolate bars, puddings and other sweet treats smaller. Never mind that childhood obesity has plateaued, even fallen, over the past 10 years. Politicians need something to have a crusade about, and today's crusade is against sugar. So we can look forward to ever-blander food - and less of it, too.

At the start of his classic comedy, Annie Hall, Woody Allen says 'There's an old joke - two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of 'em says, "Boy, the food at this place is really terrible." The other one says, "Yeah, I know; and such small portions."' That little joke would appear to sum up government food policy, too.