Why We Should Tax Ultra-Processed Foods

Woman in supermarket

Written by Cyndi

Cyndi is about educating. Her greatest love is to teach, both in the public arena and within the large corporate food companies, to enable everyone to make better choices so they too can enjoy greater health throughout their lives. Considered one of the world's foremost experts in Nutrition, Cyndi brings over 40 years experience, research and knowledge.

February 20, 2018

The future looks bleak for the Australian health care system. If we fail to make major changes now, it will need an extra $57 billion of funding by 2040 to provide adequate care for our population.

The government already spends around $170 billion a year on health care – that’s $7,050 for every person, every year. Over a lifetime (say, 80 years) that’s $564,000. Considering that most of that money will probably be spent during the last few years of our lives, you may think we have enough in the budget. But this upward-spending trend cannot be sustained.

We have a generation of children where just over 40% are sick or have life-long illnesses both physical and mental, including; autism, allergies, ADD, food sensitivities, OCD, asthma, obesity, gut issues, anxiety, autoimmune disease and depression to name a few. Add to this the number of adults with lifestyle diseases and we have a growing bubble of people who will need more health care than the previous generation.

By far the highest growth in spending is now on physical and mental health disabilities. Lifestyle diseases like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, mental health issues and cancer are the biggest problems we face.

Would it not be a novel idea to stop the insanity of doing the same thing and getting the same result?

The Problems with Ultra-Processed Food

A French study reveals that eating ultra-processed foods (“formulations made mostly or entirely from substances derived from foods and additives”) increases the risk of cancer. We’ve known for some time that these foods are responsible for rising obesity rates and all diseases associated with obesity, but now we see a direct link with cancer.

Considering that in Australia 42% of household food purchased is ultra-processed, it’s not surprising we are sick.

Preventing this would be our best solution. However, the system is currently rigged for sickness and then cure – we’re waiting until the horse has bolted and then closing the gate.

A Sickness in Our Hospitals

A recent study showed that in Australian hospitals, the chances of an injury due to a medical mistake is one in seven. If you stay overnight that figure rises to one in four. Our doctors and nurses are over worked and may have their own physical and mental issues. And if they eat the hospital food it just exacerbates the problem – many hospitals offer ultra-processed, unhealthy foods that send the wrong message to the community (that these kinds of foods are healthy!).

Healthy foods are taxed while cheap ingredients for junk foods are subsidised including: wheat, sugar and vegetable oil seeds like canola and soya. These foods in all sorts of combinations make up the bulk of ingredients in ultra-processed foods, which we see in pretty packages with false claims, on 75% of the grocery shelves of major supermarket and food stores. It’s not hard to see where the miserly food budget of $6.00 a day per person in our aged care facilities would be spent – unfortunately, it’s impossible to eat healthy at that price.

We also live in a time where the magic pill is the answer to all. Many aged care and hospital patients are on a poly-pharmacy cocktail of medications that have never been tested to be safe in combination. Many of these medications are government subsidised. Medical doctors have very little training in nutrition and won’t believe that food is medicine unless it has been through a double-blind study or is evidence based. How can we possibly put food on trial when food itself is not a single nutrient, either macro or micro, and the human body is not a predictable mechanical machine where the results are always the same?

 Rewarded for Being Sick

The food that we have been eating for thousands of generations is the food that was instrumental in the survival of cultures and thus humans. Food is not only about energy and nutrition needs: we now know through the science of nutrigenomics that food speaks to our DNA through signals, turning our genes on and off to express health and longevity or sickness depending on what food you eat. The gene is the loaded gun but our lifestyle, environment and food choices are the triggers.

Never before have we eaten ultra-processed foods filled with additives, preservatives, flavourings, fillers, binders, starches, all made in a chemical laboratory. These foods are sending signals to our DNA and may be turning on genes that promote obesity, cancer, autoimmunity, diabetes and heart disease instead of health. It’s a poly-additive food fest where many of the additives have only been tested for GRAS (generally regarded as safe) as a single unit but never in combination. We’ve become the largest human experiment and the results are revealing.

Recently I went into a grocery store and bought 7 items, all made with seed oils, wheat and sugar and additives. Many of the additives are made from industrial foods like soy, wheat, corn, sugar and seed oils (all subsidised crops). I purchased a loaf of bread, a box of breakfast cereal, a packet of pasta, a box of crackers, a cake, some cookies and a breakfast muesli bar. I purposely chose the cheapest of these items. When I got to the checkout I handed over no more than $8.00 (this was in the US).

Australia is not much different. No wonder we have people choosing ultra-processed foods over real food – it’s an affordability issue, but with expensive outcomes in medical costs, mental health issues and productivity.

We are not encouraged to live a healthy lifestyle but rather we are rewarded when we are sick with free health care and prescribed drugs and medications.

I don’t use the current medical model. I eat real food (by no means do I follow the dietary guidelines), move every day and live as healthy a lifestyle as I can. I’m not a burden on the system but not once has the government decreased my Medicare levy. By my calculations, at the age of 57, if 10% of my annual health care budget was returned to me, the government would owe me a tidy sum of $46,710. Add my family into the mix and there would be a couple of hundred thousand in incentives.  That would be a nice bonus for staying healthy and not being a burden on the sickness budget.

And don’t even think that I’m lucky…you should see my gene pool – it’s not hardy nor healthy! I work at staying healthy – I educate myself and I give the right signals to my DNA by living a healthy lifestyle and eating the food that my evolutionary body needs in order to thrive.

A Tax on Ultra-Processed Foods, Not Our Health

So, what do I propose?

I propose a tax on all packaged ultra-processed foods including those from fast food places. How can you identify ultra-processed foods when you walk into a fast food place or grocery store? Just ask for a list of the ingredients or read the ingredients on the package and I can promise you they won’t sound or read like a food list.

Here is an example of the ingredients found in just the bun of a famous hamburger fast food restaurant. Note the three largest ingredients are wheat, seed oil and sugar – all subsidised crops:

Enriched Flour (Bleached Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Water, High Fructose Corn Syrup and/or Sugar, Yeast, Soybean Oil and/or Canola Oil, Contains 2% or Less: Salt, Wheat Gluten, Calcium Sulfate, Calcium Carbonate, Ammonium Sulfate, Ammonium Chloride, Dough Conditioners (May Contain One or More of: Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate, DATEM, Ascorbic Acid, Azodicarbonamide, Mono and Diglycerides, Ethoxylated Monoglycerides, Monocalcium Phosphate, Enzymes, Guar Gum, Calcium Peroxide), Sorbic Acid (Preservative), Calcium Propionate and/or Sodium Propionate (Preservatives), Soy Lecithin, Sesame Seed.

In case you want to check out what is in the rest of the food from this fast food restaurant, follow this link (scroll toward the end): http://nutrition.mcdonalds.com/usnutritionexchange/ingredientslist.pdf

The money that is collected from the tax of these ultra-processed foods should then go to help local producers bring local foods to the local market: seasonal, fresh, chemical free and without packaging. Farmers markets are becoming more popular; people are wanting this change and we should be working towards making these nutritious, real foods more affordable.

In this scenario, communities would thrive. People who have been replaced by big agricultural business and found out of work could be given land to work. They could grow healthy foods to help improve our soils, which in turn creates food that the human body has evolved to eat. It could improve the health of a community, a country and the world.

Instead, we have a medical system that doesn’t believe food is healing, and a subsidy on food-like substances and the medications (PBS) needed to treat people that get sick from eating these ultra-processed foods.

What we are doing is not working. Something must change. But who has the gumption in parliament to stand up for our future generations?

I would love to see a Prime Minister who has less shares in the drug and chemical corporations and more shares in sustainable agriculture. One who is concerned about our health, the environment and our future.

Now that would be a powerful leader.


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  1. Arjun

    Fantastic . Well written . These foods should be taxed just like cigarettes. Various studies has proven that ultra processed foods are more responsible for various life threatening diseases and disorders as compared to cigarettes. Processed food is highly dangerous and should be banned or taxed immediately.Any use of chemical /pesticides/ antibiotics should be banned. Organic farming and products should be subsidised.But why only McDonalds when we have products like up and go, milo.Check their nutrition and ingredients , you will never touch them and they have 4.5 star health rating and kids are gulping them like anything thinking it’s good for their health, even the parents are teaching them so. This is ridiculous .

  2. Karen Freeman

    Well said Cyndi
    A skull cross bone symbol on processed packs which would depict the poisonous sprays used to produce such foods & that are being used on so called fresh fruit veg
    Certified Organic & Biodynamic Farmers pay hefty fees each year this should be abolished with commercial sector having to pay for the skull crossbone symbol

    Keep up the awareness Cyndi

  3. Marlene

    I couldn’t agree more.
    If processed foods were taxed the way healthy foods were, people would probably be inclined to go for the real food.
    There would have to be a huge education campaign to stop the people who can’t be bothered to cook the real food, or who have no idea what real food is even.

  4. Kathy

    Wholeheartedly agree. I for one could do with a “health” bonus, as it costs me more to stay healthy than a sick person!

  5. Della

    Great way of looking at a change of the way we look at health cost and Taxation but as to the subsidization of Wheat, corn, oil cropping I take exception.
    I am a farmer and grow these crops and sometimes wish there was some help out there. Some seasons our price at silo do not cover the cost of growing, never lone pay back the bank or cost of living.
    So if you could check the subsidization of crops I would apreciate that. If you can find it I appologize but I have not seen it.
    Back to the ideas of putting public moneys into “health” rather than the next pill to cure an illness will need education of the young rather than the middle aged politition who may be already taking perscriptions unable to see an alturnative solution.
    Big topic- Keep the conversation going.


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