Half of Americans will be obese by 2030 if current trends continue, according to a report released last week in the British medical journal The Lancet.
In addition to the health consequences _ millions more people facing premature death and reduced quality of life from diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer _ the cost of treating these largely preventable conditions will increase U.S. health care expenditures by a projected $48 billion to $66 billion a year. This trend absolutely must be addressed and will not be reversed, the report concluded, without government-led efforts to make healthful foods cheaper and unhealthy foods more expensive.
The obesity pandemic is a global problem, and, while America has been unable to reach a consensus on the merits of even a 3-cent tax on soda, European countries are taking action. The Hungarian Parliament recently approved a series of taxes on pre-packaged foods with high salt and sugar contents. Norway has a tax on sugar and chocolate; Finland has a tax on sugary products and is considering a tax on saturated fat; Denmark plans to introduce a tax on saturated fats later this year.
The question is, how much more expensive is it to eat healthfully, and would taxes on junk food really motivate American consumers to change their habits?
There is certainly a perception that health food costs more than junk food. At a local pool the other day, I overheard two young men commiserating over their grocery bills.
"It's so expensive to eat healthy," one said. "I'd like to see more people putting in gardens," said the other, after explaining how little work was involved in his own small plot and sharing some surplus cucumbers and tomatoes.
There is also data to back up the perception that empty calories cost less. A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that $1 will buy 1,200 calories of potato chips or 875 calories of soda _ but only 250 calories of vegetables or 170 calories of fresh fruit.
But what does that really mean to the average consumer? I did some price comparing at Hannaford the other day and was surprised by what I found.
"¢ Milk vs. soda: A gallon of fat-free, store-brand milk was $2.69, a penny less than the same amount (two 2-liter bottles) of Coca-Cola.
"¢ Bananas vs: Oreos: At 59 cents a pound, 1 medium banana cost only 30 cents more than the serving size of three Oreos, which were on sale for $2.50 a package.
"¢ Apples vs. potato chips: Lay's chips were on sale at $2 for a 10.5-ounce bag containing 11 servings. A 3-pound bag of 11 small apples, on the other hand, cost $3.49.
So, yes, bananas and apples do cost more than cookies and chips. Still, basic fruits and vegetables are actually not that expensive. For a grand total of $10.94 a week, the average adult can get the recommended "five a day" by eating a banana at breakfast, salad and an apple for lunch, and a serving of cooked vegetables at dinner.
That same $11 would buy 1 package of Chips Ahoy cookies, 1 bag of Doritos, 1 bag of M&Ms and a box of Yodels. Would a tax on these items really spur an obese adult to choose salad over chips? I doubt it. However, it might make an impact on the next generation if the revenue were put toward programs that help kids be active _ like bike paths, parks and intramural sports _ or used in an overhaul of the school lunch program that would enable more school districts to buy fresh food from local farmers rather than relying on canned vegetables and fruit cocktail.
Taxes may be part of the solution, but we need broad cultural change that levels the playing field _ so that good food is as widely available, appealing and affordable as junk food. Public will for change is increasing, and the market is starting to respond.
The University of North Texas recently opened the nation's first all-vegan college cafeteria _ featuring things such as roasted vegetables, homemade focaccia and soy-based soft-serve ice cream _ in response to requests from students for healthier options. Closer to home, at the Crossgates Mall in Albany, health-conscious shoppers can forgo the food court and nosh on salads, wraps and fruit smoothies at the Fresh Café.
Now, if we could just get rid of drive-throughs and candy-filled check-outs, we might make some progress.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.