How the British are winning the battle against Big Food

I did a year of medical training in London. Maybe that’s why I have such a soft spot for the English. But the truth is, I do admire their government’s approach to public health — most of the time.

Some people might call it a “nanny state.” And even I admit that sometimes they go overboard. But not usually. And certainly not in this instance…

Here’s what I’m talking about: I just read that the British government recently announced a new tax on sugary drinks. And they’re giving beverage companies two years to fall in line and reformulate… or pay the price.  

The tax won’t apply to pure fruit juices and milk. (A little disappointing, since both are every bit as harmful as a sugar-sweetened beverage. But you have to start somewhere — and it’s more than we’re doing here in the U.S.)

Still, the government expects this measure to raise more than 500 million in extra funds. Money that will go directly toward funding physical activity programs in the country’s primary schools.

And if that wasn’t impressive enough, just listen to what finance minister George Osborne (a man after my own heart) said during his budget speech to Parliament:

I am not prepared to look back at my time here in this Parliament, doing this job and say to my children’s generation: ‘I’m sorry. We knew there was a problem with sugary drinks. We knew it caused disease. But we ducked the difficult decisions and we did nothing.’”

All I can say is WOW. A politician that does something for the people and not just for himself? I’m truly blown away.

He went on to say that it doesn’t matter if big businesses simply pass the tax along to consumers. The whole point is to discourage drinking sugar-sweetened beverages — and if people have to pay more money for them, that’s one effective way to do the job.

Call it unfair if you want. But if anything, the UK’s strategy is the embodiment of consumer freedom. If it were up to me, these beverages would be outright banned. But in this case, if you need a sugary drink so badly, then you’ll simply have to pay more for it — just as you do with cigarettes and alcohol.

This is an amazing first step toward reducing the obesity rate. Of course, it should be couched within a larger overall strategy. But the fact of the matter is, smoking rates didn’t decline until we started regulating and taxing cigarettes to death.

It’s way past time we assumed this take-no-prisoners approach with the beverage industry, too.

And trust me, the industry is scared. They are all beating their chests now and acting outraged. But the writing is on the wall. This sea change is happening, and it isn’t going away. More and more governments are going to join the fight, because Big Food has had a license to kill for too long.

It’s a pretty major victory when you have companies like Nestle vowing to make healthier foods in order to protect their market share. (Because as you know, that will always be their top priority.)

Believe me, this is no endorsement of Nestle. (They rank right up there with Monsanto as one of my most despised companies.) But to their credit, the company removed 2600 tons of sugar from their product recipes last year.

They also developed a unique nutrient profiling system to aid in overhauling their inventory and making their products healthier for children and adults. And they’re encouraging other manufacturers to follow suit before the government starts forcing hands, too.

It’s not what would happen in my perfect world. But for this world, it’s not a bad start.

Let’s face it — we’re never going to be able to feed the whole population without relying on processed food. (At least not in my lifetime.) The least we can do is push companies to make the healthiest possible version of it.

So what if they’re doing it to protect their profits? The end result is still a healthier population.

And, as I always say, little steps can add up to some very big changes.