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There is a movement in the United States to tax soda and high-fat snacks to save people from the undesirable health effects of eating them, just as a tax on cigarettes has been used to discourage smoking.

Researchers Find Who Really Cares If High-Fat Foods Are Taxed

There are currently no taxes on high-calorie snacks, although New York City has passed an ordinance requiring fast food restaurants and coffee shops to provide nutritional information and the US federal government has passed legislation requiring labels on vending machine foods and certain kinds of restaurant foods, as part of the national healthcare reform legislation passed in 2010.

But if high-fat foods were taxed, would it really make a difference? Researchers at the University of Maastricht in the Netherlands, publishing their findings in the February 2011 edition of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest taxes would result in lower consumption of high-fat foods.

The Dutch researchers tested 178 American college students in a computer simulation of price increases on fast food. They found that applying European-level taxes on American consumers definitely discouraged overeating.

The college students were shown menus of fast foods for which the highest-calorie items, bacon cheeseburgers, brownies, and chips, were taxed first 25 per cent and then 50 per cent. Students who were already calorie-conscious did not choose the highest-calorie foods at any price. Students who were not calorie-conscious, however, were less likely to choose bacon cheeseburgers, brownies, and chips when the price was raised 25 per cent, and much less likely when the price was raised 50 per cent.

But would this system work in reality?

American Public Not in the Mood to Pay Tax on Food, Commentators Warn

Simply telling people how much fat and how many calories are in a fast food snack has little effect on consumption. A report released 15 February 2011 by researchers at NYU in New York City found that teenagers pay little attention to the nutritional information required by city ordinance. The teens surveyed reported they ordered an average of 725 calories in each fast food meal, and that they were more concerned about taste than calories.

The NYU researchers also interviewed adults, and found that 28 per cent of adult New Yorkers in the study did pay attention to the nutritional information posted for their snacks. These consumers, however, also reported eating more calories since the nutritional information began to be posted, presumably concluding that the calorie and fat counts for their favorite snacks really were not that bad.

There have been real-world tests of taxes on fast food in the United States. Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, which is associated with Harvard Medical School, put a 35 per cent surcharge on sugar-sweetened soft drinks. Patrons of the hospital switched to "healthier" Nutrasweet-sweetened sodas and coffee. Increasing the price of food 35 per cent definitely reduces consumption.

Harvard Medical School, however, probably is not representative of the United States population as a whole. Most arbiters of American political opinion judge that Americans would reject 25 to 50 per cent taxes on fast food, especially if it were "for their own good." A tax of 10 per cent might be an easier sell, but researchers do not know if that would be high enough to reduce consumption.

Some people can eat any food they want regardless of price. Some people can only afford fast food. The only result of a tax on fast food, it is not unreasonable to believe, might be just to put an additional burden on the poor.

  • Giesen JC, Payne CR, Havermans RC, Jansen A. Exploring how calorie information and taxes on high-calorie foods influence lunch decisions. Am J Clin Nutr. 2011 Jan 26. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Hartocollis, Anemona. The Calories Are Listed, But Teenagers Don't Care. New York Times, 15 February 2011.
  • Photo courtesy of Raul Urzua de la Sotta by Flickr :