Fri, Jun-10-22, 00:02
‘British supermarkets are a murder mile of sugar’
Henry Dimbleby: ‘British supermarkets are a murder mile of sugar’
The Government’s food tsar say it’s time to change the way we eat before it kills us – and our children
Another day, another blistering indictment of the national waistline. Recent headlines: obese Britons will outnumber those of a healthy weight (it’s no longer possible to say “normal”) within five years; a decade after that, 70 per cent of us will be either overweight or obese. From diabetes to cancer, the costs of piling on the pounds are not just physical. The chances of developing dementia, a large study has shown, is reduced by more than 40 per cent by lower weight.
Obesity seems such an obvious health calamity, surely the government must do something about it. Regulate, legislate or... hesitate. While elsewhere it merrily slays the sacred cows of low tax, small state conservatism, there remains something viscerally unnerving for this Tory government about intervening in personal health. Nothing is more politically sensitive than telling people what to put in their bodies, whether vaccine or vindaloo. It smacks of the nanny state. Of micro-managing, busy-bodying, market-meddling.
Which ought to make Henry Dimbleby, 52, (yes, son of David) persona non grata on the Right. For here is the founder of “healthy fast food chain” Leon turned adviser to Defra, admitting that his National Food Strategy (NFS), with its call for sugar and salt taxes, is distinctly “interventionist”.
He knows that it goes against the Conservative grain. But he also knows that the cost of doing nothing is becoming so immense that, increasingly, even freemarket Tories are torn.
One of them is Health Secretary Sajid Javid. “He’s clever. Small state, free market. And yet [he knows that] either we do something about this, or we start putting so much money into the NHS that it sucks money from everything else.” It’s true. In a decade, type 2 diabetes treatment is forecast to cost the NHS £35.6 billion, 1.5 times the £20 billion currently spent on all cancers combined.
Only a couple of months ago, Javid admitted that the NHS was at a crossroads. “We must choose between endlessly putting in more and more money, or reforming how we do healthcare.” Henceforth, he said, “prevention” is the watchword. And prevention, Dimbleby suggests, means intervention.
Dimbleby wants to tax sugar. The NFS calls for a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt, incentivising manufacturers to “reformulate their recipes or reduce their portion sizes”. The UK’s expert group on calorie reduction suggests the measure “could completely halt weight gain at a population level”, as well as raise about £3 billion, at a cost to consumers, “if they don’t change the foods they purchase, of around 16p-20p per adult per day.”
Whether the Government adopts this measure will only become clear with the publication of two White Papers later this year – one on food production and the other on health disparities. But the Prime Minister’s delay on a proposed ban on buy-one-get-one-free (Bogof) deals, and adverts for junk food before the 9pm TV watershed, does not bode well. Tesco and Sainsbury’s are pressing ahead with the Bogof ban, Morrisons is not, despite its CEO David Potts being a “very nice man”. “There will always be someone who will follow the money and Morrisons will make more money in the short term.”
There are other culprits. Dimbleby has previously described the checkout aisles “even of supposedly responsible companies such as Marks & Spencer, [as] like a kind of murder mile of sugar”. Delivery companies scootering takeouts to our doors are simply “making it worse”.
Precisely because junk food is cheap, Dimbleby says, the poor are most affected. “Eighty per cent of processed food sold in the UK is unhealthy.” They are also “on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods.” The poor are four times more likely than the rich to be severely obese when they arrive at primary school. In Europe, Britain ranks third for obesity, behind only Turkey and Malta. As a result, Dimbleby says, anti-obesity measures are actually popular. “People are fed up with their children being marketed crap. We need to change the food culture.” The diet that “would be kindest to both health and environment is pulses and vegetables”. Yum.
But Dimbleby is far too canny, and too fond of grub himself, to demand anything so hair-shirted. His own weight “goes between the top of OK and bottom of obese. I have to control it”, he says of his appetite. “I basically eat too much.” And while he takes a lot of exercise, he knows that exercise “is fantastic for almost everything but it doesn’t make you lose weight” on its own. His big food indulgence, he once confessed, is “pickled-onion Monster Munch”.
Perhaps a jab would make things easier. He tells me about a great friend – “educated, great cook, but she couldn’t control her appetite. She gets an injection.” It has “completely changed her appetite. Now she eats enough and then stops”.
Suddenly he lurches off in search of an analogy. What he comes back with is rather unexpected. “Humans have strong needs. For sex. To eat. The free will, libertarian narrative ignores how strong human drivers are, and that they’re stronger in some than others, and that’s a genetic thing. If someone was paying millions of pounds to send beautiful women to seduce me, I would almost certainly find it harder to stay faithful. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but you know…”
Well thank goodness for that, because otherwise this would be a rather awkward way of breaking bad news to a colleague – Dimbleby’s wife, Mima, better known to Telegraph readers as the columnist Jemima Lewis, with whom he has three children, aged 14, 12 and 10. Last year, Leon was bought for a rumoured £100 million, and though Dimbleby’s stake was by then diluted, Eton and Oxford-educated himself, he and Jemima are not exactly hard up.
Should a multimillionaire really be giving advice to, and about, the poor? “It’s always middle-class, well-educated people who say that,” he shoots back. The poor don’t care who’s helping. “They worry about not buying fruit for their children. Not because they can’t afford fruit, but because if they’ve got a picky child and they don’t eat it, or it goes off, they can’t afford to buy them something else. Their freedom is curtailed in all sorts of ways.”
With rocketing food prices such dilemmas are affecting ever more people. Ukraine is “a real food security issue”, he says, but our own response is turning from bad to worse. “People are using a good crisis to slow change rather than to accelerate it and I find that quite depressing.”
The National Farmers’ Union, which wants farmers to be paid more to produce more food domestically, is one target of his ire. “The idea that you affect the cost of food by subsidising a tiny amount of global production? It’s insane.” This is something footballer Marcus Rashford understands. Dimbleby admires his ability to unlock political capital and make things happen on free school meals. “He was extraordinary, incredible. He had this really amazing aura.”
Dimbleby is in no doubt that the art of getting things done in politics is often down to such force of personality.
Nevertheless, to impact the cost of living crisis, a choice has to be made either “to give money or food. Either expand free school meals and the like, or improve benefits”.
In terms of land usage and farming, technology will play a huge role in its transformation, he says, with gene-edited crops needed to resist climate change, which will otherwise increase food production in the northern hemisphere and decrease it in the south. (That’s the most frightening [forecast],” he says. “Every time I see it, it just looks like mass migration. It looks like war.”)
Lab-grown meat and dairy will revolutionise the way we use land. Some 85 per cent of land that produces UK food is used to graze livestock or produce crops to feed to animals. “We need some of that land back. We’re going to sequester carbon. We’re going to restore biodiversity. We’re going to use it for leisure. We’re going to use it for fuel, we’re going to use it for construction.”
He talks about such mighty cultural shifts with the thoughtful acceptance of a man who has looked at the long-term big picture and seen their inevitability. Issues such as food are so consequential, he says, that they will have to be tackled “in the end”, and he doesn’t care who does so. “I’m not ideological, I could happily vote for any party.” Which might sound like having it both ways, a way of rationalising the contradictions he embodies: the wealthy entrepreneur who nannies the poor; the ultra urban Hackney resident who wants to remodel the countryside; the multimillionaire who sends two of his kids to state school. He presses on, regardless, and reckons he’s got three more decades of working in him, which will “get me to 82”.
His father, David, a year older, shows no sign of slowing down, and anchored the BBC coverage of the Platinum Jubilee. It makes me wonder whether Henry, this pillar of the Establishment now intent on gnawing away at its very foundation – land and its use – is a monarchist. He ponders for a while. “The older you get,” he says finally, “the more you realise, don’t f--- with institutions unless you really have to.”
But hang on, what about farming and food and agriculture and supermarkets and everything else he wants to change? “Yeah,” he replies with feeling. “Unless you really have to.”