‘Get rid of VAT on fruit and vegetables’ and other ideas that make us eat better

Health organizations look expectantly to the government to improve the way we eat. Some ideas.

Today, Belgians suffer from many diseases of prosperity caused by the way we eat. For example, 55 percent of adults are overweight and 21 percent are obese. More and more people see it not as a result of individual choices, but as a consequence of the unhealthy food environment we live in, which makes it very difficult to make healthy choices. In this regard, it is the government that should intervene to reform the entire food system. It could be done in several ways.

1. VAT on fruit and vegetables at 0%

Today: every Belgian pays six percent VAT on fruit and vegetables. Every year, Belgian families spend an average of around 950 euros on fresh fruit and vegetables. Around 54 euros of this goes to the treasury.

The idea: The call to lower the VAT on fruit and vegetables to 0% is getting louder and louder. Organizations such as Beter Leven and Bond Beter Leefmilieu have long been in favor, and things are also starting to stir in Belgian politics. For example, Finance Minister Vincent Van Peteghem (CD&V) has already indicated that he is inclined to accept this idea, and Groen now also wants to abolish the VAT on fruit and vegetables. “In this way, we make a varied diet much more accessible to everyone, even for people on a tight budget,” says Groen MP Barbara Creemers. In light of the strong inflation, a VAT reduction on fruit and vegetables would not come too soon, believes the Groen member of parliament.

Does it work? Several studies concluded that cheaper healthy products can help promote healthy eating. Especially when this is accompanied by an increase in the price of unhealthy products.

2. Introduction of health tax

Today: there is a sugar tax, introduced by Maggie De Block (Open VLD) in 2015. However, it was too low to encourage consumers to look for an alternative. Belgium tops the list of European countries that drink the most soft drinks.

The idea: Both the health institute Sciensano and the Flemish Institute for Healthy Living want to go a step further and argue for the broadest possible ‘health tax’ on all ultra-processed foods. The proceeds from this must go exclusively to unprocessed or minimally processed foods, for example by lowering the VAT on the products in question to 0 percent. “Product prices must take into account the possible long-term health costs of these products. A tax takes these costs associated with the consumption of sugar-rich products into account’, according to Gezond Leven.

Does it work? Yes: a tax is effective in encouraging healthier food choices. There are various examples around the world that show that a broad health tax works. Take Mexico for example: after the introduction of a tax on sugary drinks in 2014 (10 percent price increase), consumption fell by 7.6 percent. It is striking that consumption among vulnerable groups even fell by 11.7 percent. The tax is expected to prevent 239,900 cases of obesity over a 10-year period. Or look at the UK: a sugar tax that mainly taxed producers meant that more sugar was extracted from soft drinks in one year than the industry could achieve through ten years of voluntary commitments.

3. An advertising ban on ultra-processed foods (for children)

Today: we are overwhelmed by marketing from the food industry. Supermarket leaflets overflow with campaigns for unhealthy products, food giants sponsor events, public spaces are covered in advertisements,… Children are also targeted despite the Belgian Pledge Charter, where food companies promised to only advertise children’s products if they meet certain criteria ( less fat, sugar and salt). Almost 90 percent of all food advertisements for children therefore deal with unhealthy food, with or without the help of children’s figures. Self-regulation is too non-binding and does not work, believes the consumer organization Test-Achats.

The idea: Tobacco advertising has been banned since 1999. A similar ban could be applied to unhealthy foods, argues Gezond Leven, especially when it comes to products explicitly intended for children. An age limit could be agreed, media where no advertising is allowed, packaging could become more neutral, for example by banning the use of popular characters, …

Does it work? Advertising encourages purchase. This has already been shown in England in recent years. British researchers have calculated that the 2019 ban on junk food on London’s public transport system has prevented almost 100,000 cases of obesity. This is good for a saving in UK healthcare of £218m or €260m. Purchases of candy and chocolate fell by 19.4 percent.

4. A boost for the short chain

Today: the majority of Belgians buy their daily food in supermarkets, where ultra-processed foods are ubiquitous.

The idea: A farmer doesn’t have the technological resources to do with his produce the way food producers can, and so farmers’ markets, farm shops and vegetable packages simply won’t offer industrial food. What if people would simply get their vegetables, fruit, dairy products, meat, fish and eggs from where they come more often and thus not be exposed to the temptations of the food industry? At the same time, this also gives more breathing space to the producers, who no longer see part of the proceeds of their labor evaporate in the intermediate steps between them and the consumer.

Does it work? Italian research showed that average BMI was lower in regions with more farmers’ markets compared to regions where residents went to the supermarket more often.

Avoid eating ultra-processed factory foods for a month. What does it do to the body and limbs? How do you feel physically and mentally and what does it do to your social life? Some Knack editors took up the challenge and eliminated processed foods from their diets. The conclusions raise a lot of questions about what and how we eat every day. Read all about it at weekend.knack.be/WeetWatJeEet.

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