What are the right policy tools to help people cut down on so-called ‘junk foods’? This question has led to some vigorous political clashes in recent years and brought about a new wave of interventionism, as regulators in different countries pursued wildly varying approaches.

From Denmark’s double tax on sugars and satfats (soon retired following strong opposition from industry), to France’s ‘taxe soda’ on soft drinks, to hybrid traffic labelling in the UK, it is clear that policy-makers have a huge range of choices available to them when it comes to tackling junk food. This raises the question: who is right about junk food? Is there even a measurable, objective ‘reality’ of what junk food is, or is the term just a buzzword to drive media coverage and help policy-makers create consensus around their interventions? In the era of ‘evidence-based policy-making’ this matters. A lot. 

Having researched approaches to ‘junk food’ across Europe for an upcoming scientific paper – to be published WHEN and WHERE – I am convinced we urgently need a consensus approach to defining what ‘junk food’ actually is. A big part of the challenge is that there is no overall EU policy to deal with the burden of obesity at the moment, with policy decisions left up to individual member states. And national policy-making, pressed by public health goals – such as “the need to protect citizens, here, now” –, often clashes in many cases with a more comprehensive, scientific definition of junk food, focusing instead on single ‘killer’ nutrients and targeting those through taxation and labelling. But there is also a lack of consensus among global institutions (WHO, EFSA, FAO, OECD…) on the very nature of ‘junk’. This has led to fragmentation, giving politicians the space to promote their own methods for solving the junk food problem.

The upshot? True scientific consensus takes the backseat to narrow, national political agendas. That’s a shame, not least because politicians stand to benefit from scientific consensus in the long run – if there were an objective ‘last word’ on what can be considered good and ‘less good’ foods, it would help them defend their policy choices in front of lobby groups, for example.

Obviously, this would mean dismissing that old relativistic mantra: no good or bad foods exist as such; there are only good diets and bad diets. This doesn’t seem true any more. Compelling evidence shows that sugar and salt do have health implications. But people do not eat sugar and salt. They eat complex foods that contain sugar and salt – but healthy nutrients as well. 

In the true spirit of the ‘nutrient profiles’ the EC has been promising, we need to give ratings to foods to help citizens make informed choices, but in so doing we need to consider the true nature of the food. We need a holistic approach, in which vitamins and minerals along with other good nutrients are balanced against more problematic ones, such as sugar, salt and satfats. Such an approach would make the way we talk to citizens about foods such as cheese, for example, much more balanced and informative.

Shifting away from focusing on individual nutrients towards a whole-food approach won’t be easy, but it’s absolutely vital. Otherwise, we risk having further policy fragmentation, which in turn will lead to an uncertain business environment for food producers and retailers – and even more mixed messages for consumers.

Corrado Finardi is a policy adviser for Coldiretti Italian Farmers