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Meat Tax: Behind the Headlines

The most talked about nutrition news last week was the possibility of a meat tax.

You probably saw some headlines like this:

"Meat tax would save lives and cut health bills by billions".

But it isn't that simple.

First of all, these headlines were based on ONE research paper which was published last week. So articles stating "experts agree that.." or "scientists confirm that..." are not accurate. One study does not decide scientific fact. Single papers tell us very little in fact- what we need is a whole body of research before we decide!

What did the paper say?

This article was based on modelling, whereby the researchers used a model to predict meat consumption, disease incidence and healthcare costs in 2020. The researchers found that their model predicted that "red meat was associated with 860,000 deaths globally in the year 2020" and that processed meat was associated with 1,530,000 deaths. These deaths were due to stroke, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.

That sounds pretty scary and makes a tax on meat seem logical, but it isn't necessarily.

Problems with using this study to inform policy:

  • This is one paper using one model of calculation- we need lots more research to give us a better idea of true implications of a tax on meat.

  • The study only took meat consumption into account, but lots of other things impact our health and disease risk- for example genetics play a role in heart disease and fibre intake plays a role in colorectal cancer. In fact, none of the conditions mentioned in the study are influenced solely by diet.

Other considerations when discussing a meat tax:

Should we reduce our consumption of meat? Absolutely. Many of us eat more meat than is necessary and could benefit from cutting down on meat and choosing some more plant based options.

But, it is important to remember that:

Meat is nutritious- it contains protein, fat, iron, zinc & B vitamins, so to tax all meat could have a negative impact on the nutritional quality of our diets. Of particular concern is iron, which many women don't consume enough of already. Consuming meat in moderation is healthy.

Remember also that we eat meat in the context of a whole diet, that contains fruit, veg, grains, dairy etc too. We don't just eat meat, and data suggests our meat consumption is reducing and our consumption of processed meats is not at a "high risk" level for health. So should we really worry about taxing meat?

A meat tax will only affect the poorest in our population. The level of tax proposed in this paper would increase most meat in the UK by up to £1. This price increase will not make meat unaffordable to middle/upper classes, but it will have an impact on those with a limited food budget. As meat is energy dense (provides kcals, fat and protein), widely available and available in many quick and easy to prepare products, it is useful for those on a budget (of money and time). E.G. mince is cheap, but can make lots of fast, nutritious and filling meals. If mince was increased in price by £1, would everyone still be able to afford it if they wished to buy it? Probably not.

Farming remains a big industry in the UK and Ireland and a meat tax would have a huge impact on the livelihoods of many farmers.

Taxing foods we think are "unhealthy" isn't necessarily helpful. What about providing better education so that the population can make an informed choice themselves?

Or what about making foods, like fruit and veggies, meat alternatives, nuts & seeds, more affordable? Many processed meats are cheaper and more widely available than tofu and lentils.

And, is there anything to be said for providing cookery classes in the community? Lack of skills and knowledge of food & recipes impacts what we eat. We should surely address this too!

Take home:

Taxing food is unlikely to be the answer. There are many other ways to influence diet and nutrition- instead of banning and taxing things, let's empower our population to decide for themselves!

Excessive meat consumption can have a negative impact on health, but the headlines this study created failed to understand the nuance of the situation. Journalists are not (usually) scientists! As with everything in nutrition, there is no right or wrong and it isn't black or white- lots of factors play a role, so you do you :)

If you would like to read the research paper, click me!

Lots of love,

Little O x

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