We are too fat because we want to eat cheap and don’t want to cook ourselves

In order to reduce obesity, it does not help either to reduce the number of fast food restaurants or to make fruit and vegetables cheaper. This requires a change in our food culture, argues Wim Groot. The food must be more expensive.

The four large municipalities will reduce the number of fast food restaurants in poorer neighbourhoods. They want the government to offer them legal options to prevent the establishment of new fast food places, for example near schools.

Earlier, the councilor for ‘food’ in Ede municipality also got this idea. The State Secretary for Health, Maarten van Oijen, is now investigating the possibilities for such a measure. The Secretary of State is quite busy doing research. He also examines which products warrant the abolition of VAT on fruit and vegetables.

More virtuous politics than realistic

Whether these trial balloons ever become a reality remains to be seen. European rules make a zero VAT rate difficult to implement, the tax authorities will undoubtedly claim that it cannot be done, and according to the Goods Act it is also difficult to implement stopping fast food restaurants.

The plans are more a sign of virtuous politics than realistic. More importantly, both measures have virtually no effect on reducing obesity and unhealthy eating behaviors.

Municipalities fill a vacancy with fast food restaurants

This does not change the fact that the municipalities are rightly concerned about the increase in the number of fast food restaurants. Over the past five years, that number has increased by 27%. Last year alone, 1,320 were added. Snack bars, pizzerias and grill rooms are the most common fast food restaurants. The Netherlands now has more fast food restaurants than regular restaurants. How skewed the relationship is becomes clear when we compare this with the number of greengrocers. That number fell by more than 400 between 2010 and 2019. The Netherlands now has just 870 greengrocers compared to 18,250 fast food restaurants.

The decrease in the number of greengrocers and the increase in the number of fast food restaurants are connected in several ways. One is that many municipalities make up for a vacant space by providing the opportunity for more outlets for ready-to-eat food. Butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers are driven from the high streets by the high rent and replaced by fast food chains that can afford the high rent.

You can also have fast food delivered to your home

So there is every reason to do something about the rise of fast food. However, the legal measures to prevent new establishments, which the municipalities demand, do not help. Fewer fast food restaurants will not reduce fast food consumption. At most, this will lead to consumers having to travel further and wait longer for the fast food restaurants that still have to establish themselves.

These obstacles are also becoming easier to circumvent because fast food can now be easily ordered online and delivered to your home via Thuisbezorgd or UberEats. The most important consequence of the measures that the municipalities are now demanding is that the turnover and profits of the fast food restaurants that are allowed to set up will increase.

The Dutch want to eat quickly and cheaply, and not cook themselves

The municipalities have butter on their heads. They sound the alarm about the increase in the number of obese people and want government measures to limit the number of fast food restaurants. At the same time, they are doing everything they can to fill the vacancy in the shopping streets with fast food restaurants and other eateries.

The rise of fast food reflects our food culture and the changing use of time. Convenience is an important reason. The Dutch want to eat quickly and cheaply. Fast food provides that. As food has become much cheaper and more readily available in recent decades, and we have begun to spend less time preparing our food, our food consumption has increased. As a result, more than half of adults are now obese.

Price reductions on fruit and vegetables have little effect

The government’s plan to lower VAT on fruit and vegetables is not a solution to this problem. Not only have greengrocers practically disappeared from the streets, by making fruit and vegetables cheaper, we will only eat more and the number of obese people will increase further. As is so often the case with this cabinet, it is primarily the higher incomes that benefit from the VAT reduction: Higher educated people with higher incomes eat more fruit and vegetables after all.

The VAT reduction has virtually no effect on the consumption of fruit and vegetables. In itself, a lower price leads to more consumption. But price is only one factor, convenience is a much more important factor. Preparing vegetables yourself takes much more time than ordering fast food. This will not change due to the VAT reduction. For many households, time is a bigger bottleneck than money, and convenience is a more important reason for not cooking. As a result, a price reduction on fruit and vegetables will ultimately have little effect.

Far fewer obese Italians

We also live in a culture where self-cooking is not highly valued. Eating out is. Combined with the typically Dutch desire that everything not be too expensive, this has led to a huge increase in the number of fast food restaurants.

Compare our food culture with that of the Italians. Italians spend a large part of their day eating. Lunch and dinner can easily take a few hours each. Still, the number of overweight Italians – like everyone else who has spent this summer on an Italian beach – is much smaller than here. The big difference is the quality and attention to the food. It is not for nothing that there are much fewer McDonalds and other fast food restaurants in Italy. Italians spend more time cooking themselves.

We eat all day long

Over the last fifty years, the time spent cooking in our country has decreased from about 45 minutes to less than 20 minutes a day. Self-catering is also slightly appreciated. Italians place more emphasis on preparing their own meals. Or as a waiter from a hotel near Florence once said to me when I told him they made the world’s best pasta carbonara there: ‘No, my mother makes the best carbonara’.

An important difference in food culture is that Italians eat at fixed times, while today we eat and snack almost all day long. The Italians go home at half past one for lunch, and dinner is ready from 7.30. In the Netherlands, the Nutrition Center recommends no more than seven meals a day. We eat out more and more often, but above all want our food to be cheap and spend less and less time preparing meals ourselves. This is the recipe for obesity.

Improve the quality of our food

Quality and attention to food has been replaced in our country by convenience and cheap food. This has led to a dull taste. Fast food appeals to a primitive preference for salt, sweet and fat. The Dutch are not prepared to pay for better quality. This has resulted in quality specialist shops disappearing. The quality of meat, fish, vegetables and fruit in the supermarket is simply a lot less. This decrease in quality also contributes to a decrease in the consumption of fruit and vegetables.

If we want to do something about being overweight, we must first improve the quality of the food. A reduction in VAT on fruit and vegetables has the opposite effect and only reinforces the image that above all food must be cheap. Making unhealthy foods more expensive – products with a lot of salt, sugar or unsaturated fats – helps. A higher price for unhealthy food reduces consumption. Because fast food in particular contains a lot of salt, sugar and fat, a fat tax and a sugar tax mainly affect convenience food.

Inflation helps against obesity

The current high inflation is bad news for our purchasing power, but good news for reducing obesity. Food prices in particular have risen in the past year. This reduces food consumption. Some manufacturers choose not to raise prices, but instead reduce the quantity in the package. This contraction-flation reduces consumption. The increase in petrol prices also means that people are more likely to leave the car at home and cycle or walk. More exercise also helps against obesity. In short, inflation is good for our health.

Tightened quality criteria for food production also help to eat healthier. Mandates to produce organic fruit and vegetables and stricter requirements for the quality of life of animals in factory farming improve the quality of our food. These requirements increase production costs and thus the price of food. This is not a bad thing, because the biggest problem is that we consume too much because the food is too cheap.

Nitrogen crisis due to craving for cheap and bad food

Tightening requirements for food production further improve the environment and help farmers to switch from intensive farming to organic farming. The entire nitrogen crisis in livestock farming is ultimately the result of a consumption pattern aimed at cheap, low-quality food.

In order to reduce obesity, it does not help to give the municipalities the opportunity to stop the establishment of fast food restaurants. It requires a change in our food culture. It starts with more attention to quality. For this, our food must not become even cheaper, as advocates for abolishing VAT on fruit and vegetables, but more expensive.

Wynia’s week is unrestrained and independent. Donors make it possible. Do you also want to be a Wynia’s Week sponsor? There can HERE. Thank you!

Leave a Comment