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Why do people consume junk food when it is more expensive than heathier food?

Having made headlines today with a report claiming it was simply “junk science” to suggest a healthy diet is more expensive, the Institute of Economic Affairs claimed this was the key issue in the fight against obesity. Hitting food and drink companies with regressive taxes and other measures, it suggested, was pointless.

Although the report’s author, Chris Snowdon, is no stranger to winding up the health lobby – one campaigner suggested today he might consciously eat no fruit or veg to try to be as contrary to public health advice as possible – he does have a point.

It’s clearly ridiculous to claim healthy food is too expensive when a shopper could hit his or her 5 a day target for as little as 30p.

The IEA’s research found for the £1 cost of a cheeseburger, shoppers at Asda or Tesco could help themselves to a whopping kilo of sweet potatoes, two kilos of carrots, two-and-a-half kilos of pasta, 10 apples or seven bananas.

Snowdon claims his research shows consumer choices are far more about issues such as taste (the health lobby may have something to say about areas such as salt, fat and sugar here) and convenience, than about the cost of food.

For a long time, the potential Achilles heel to this argument has been the accusation that the promotion of food in supermarkets is massively skewed towards unhealthy products.

“You have to wonder whether the Institute of Economic Affairs has actually ever set foot in a supermarket, especially with kids in tow,” says Malcolm Clark, director of the Children’s Food Campaign.

Yet what could be most significant today is the reaction from the government’s own health bosses, which seems to have shifted dramatically in the past year-and-a-bit from what had been a similar stance to Clark’s.

In October 2015, in its evidence in support of a crackdown on sugar, including calls for a sugar tax, Public Health England slammed the supermarkets for their reliance on junk food promotions.

It cited research among 30,000 shoppers by Kantar Worldpanel, which found food retail price promotions were more widespread in Britain than anywhere else in Europe, with foods on promotion accounting for about 40% of all expenditure on food and drinks consumed at home. It also found higher-sugar products were promoted more than other foods, increasing the amount of sugar purchased from higher-sugar foods and drinks by 6%. The promotions influenced purchasing by all socioeconomic and demographic groups.

But where was that argument today?

Responding to the IEA report, Dr Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at Public Health England, said the most important thing was for PHE to “work with the industry” in its reformulation  programme.

“Tackling obesity cannot be left to the individual alone,” said Tedstone. “This is why we’re working with the food and drink industry to reduce the sugar in everyday foods.”

Yet in 2015, PHE cited a crackdown on promotions as the number one way for the government to tackle obesity. It called on ministers to “reduce and rebalance the number and type of price promotions in all retail outlets including supermarkets and convenience stores and the out of home sector (including restaurants, cafés and takeaways).”

That, however, was before a change in government saw plans for an assault on promotions under David Cameron bite the dust. Since then, voluntary reformulation targets – with the exception, of course, of the soft drinks sugar levy – have emerged as the only game in town.

Supermarket bosses simply threatened to walk away from any talks on voluntary action on sugar if PHE made a crackdown on promotions part of the bargain.

So what does this mean for consumers? In effect, PHE is saying it does not believe they can be educated to eat more healthily, a least not to the extent needed to solve the obesity crisis.

And rather than ban promotions of food and drinks deemed unhealthy, it is hoping it can simply make those very same products less unhealthy than they were before.

PHE will be working with Kantar again in the autumn when it collects the first batch of results to measure progress in the government’s plans to slash 20% of sugar from products by 2020, with follow-up targets on calories and satfats in the pipeline.

It will be fascinating to see whether the results go far enough to satisfy the health lobby, or whether it is time for another round of pizza throwing with Snowdon and co.