Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The government will resize your Mars bars

Oh dear, it's the "obesity epidemic" again.

Says the Mail, the Food Standards Authority wants to "persuade" chocolate manufacturers to reduce the size of their bars "by up to a fifth". At the moment, they're talking the language of voluntary agreement, but their long term aim is presumably some form of legislation.

The Mail reports:


By 2012 the watchdog wants all confectionary to weigh no more than 50g - currently Mars bars are 58g and Bounty bars 57g.

Manufacturers have also been asked to sell bite-size bars as single items rather than as part of multibags.

They will be discouraged from promoting large supersize items - such as the Maltesers 'Big Bag' and - Mars 'Duo' - and instead encouraged to offer healthier snacks as alternatives .

...The plans, drawn up in an FSA consultation, also propose that within six years, fizzy drinks should be sold in 250 ml containers instead of standard 330ml for most brands.


Where to begin? I don't want to turn into Devil's Kitchen (that ecological niche is, after all, sufficiently filled already) but this is insulting and unworkable in equal measure. It's based on several layers of delusion, about nutrition science, about human psychology, and about the purpose of official advice. It's also an open invitation on the snack manufacturers to rip off their customers by selling them less for (presumably) the same amount of money.

Chocolate bars (and cans of fizzy drinks) are the size they are for good reasons. They are the optimum compromise between the manufacturer's desire to make the largest possible profit and the consumer's desire to have a moderately filling snack. If they are legislated smaller, or perhaps made smaller because of a voluntary agreement, then they would no longer fulfil their function. Many people would respond by buying more, rendering the whole scheme counterproductive. In any case, the notion that some quango should be setting more or less arbitrary targets for what people should consume would be scary were it not so absurd.

The alleged obesity "epidemic" is largely nonsense anyway, and not just because fatness is not a contagious disease. As reputable scientific studies show, there's almost no link between being "overweight" - as defined by the notoriously arbitrary Body Mass Index - and health problems. If anything, technically overweight people actually live longer than those whose svelte physiques meet with government approval. (As waistlines expand, after all, so does life expectancy.) Of course, there's such a thing as being morbidly obese. We all know what that looks like. Morbidly obese people are susceptible to diabetes and heart attacks, and probably get less sex, but they are and will remain in the minority.

For the taxpayer-funded obesity industry, its government sponsors/stooges and the nodding dogs of the media, there's no distinction between the morbidly obese and the overweight. There's simply a continuum of pinguidity. Hence assertions like this (in the Mail):

By 2050 up to 60 per cent of Britons will be obese and the cost to the National Health Service estimated to reach more than £8.4 billion.


Note that "and", which implies, falsely, that it is the 60 per cent projected to be obese (via a statistical process so inaccurate as to amount to conscious dishonesty) who will be costing the NHS all that money. It isn't: it's the morbidly obese. But that's the whole point. It is not the great mass of moderately overweight or even borderline obese people who concern the government calculators, it's the fact that, with the rise in average weight, there will be more people who are morbidly obese. That's why they're set on a course of bullying the whole population into losing weight, even when there's no health benefit for the great majority.

Officially, this is just a "consultation". FSA's Gill Fine denied that her quango was telling people what to eat. "We want to make it easier for people to make healthier choices — to choose foods with reduced saturated fat and sugar — or smaller portion sizes." I suppose she means that if people have the option of a large bar of chocolate or a small one, they are likely to choose the big one. Taking away that option will therefore make it easier to "choose" the smaller bar.

Nor is it just chocolate bars and fizzy drinks. The FSA's press release warns that "later in the year there will be further consultation on dairy and meat products and savoury snacks."

The FSA (not to be confused with the FSA, another quango which is supposed to have something to do with regulating the City of London) was set up in 2000 with a large budget and ambitious aims. Like some other New Labour quangos (the Equality and Human Rights Commission springs to mind) it's a bit of a pantomime horse. Some of its work is essential - investigating food contamination and other serious public health issues - but it is also supposed to pursue far vaguer goals of public health with a major part of its effort devoted, where it is not handing down edicts, to "raising awareness". If you look up "nutrition" on their website you can get a flavour of some of their rich and varied diet, including:

"Healthy catering"

"Food competences for young people"

"The Cooking Bus"

"Advice for school governors"

"Let's Cook!" campaign

"The Sheila McKechnie award"

"Using the Eatwell plate", including "How the Eatwell plate differs from 'The Balance of Good Health' plate"

"Salt reduction targets"

"Signpost labelling research"

And so much else besides. The FSA strikes me as an excellent candidate for extensive liposuction when the cuts come in.

Here's how the FSA press release puts the Mars bar reduction strategy in context:

In February 2008 the Agency published its Saturated Fat and Energy Intake Programme, which outlined the actions needed to help consumers reduce saturated fat in their diet and balance the amount of calories they consume with their needs. The Agency’s programme identified four areas for action:

* improving consumer awareness and understanding of healthy eating with particular focus on the impact of saturated fat on health
* encouraging promotion and uptake of healthier options
* encouraging accessibility of smaller food portion sizes
* encouraging voluntary reformulation of mainstream products to reduce saturated fat and energy

Earlier this year the Agency ran a media campaign across the UK raising awareness of the health risks from eating too much saturated fat along with supporting advice on how to cut down.

Once the consultation is complete, comments will be taken into account and a summary of responses will be published. It is anticipated that the final recommendations will be published by the end of the year.


That's the way the money goes...