Tax fatty foods, subsidise vegetables, new research urges

Access to healthy, convenient and cheap food is contributing to Samoa’s non-communicable diseases crisis, and it affects women most.

Researchers Dr. Penny Farrell, Anne Marie Thow, Suzie Schuster, Pavle Vizintin and Joel Negin looked at the behaviour that contributes to diet in Samoa, to inform food and health policies, and their results were published in April.

The team found food insecurity – where people do not have access to nutritious food – was as high as 85 per cent in their study of 41 women, which led them to making poorer food choices.

Dr. Penny Farrell, researcher in public health for over a decade, came to Samoa to investigate how low income countries are affected by food insecurity – “the most important public health issue of our time” she said. 

“People in low income countries are disproportionately affected. It’s part of a global food crisis and we need urgent change.”

Dr. Farrell said understanding diet and access to food should lead to better prevention of non-communicable diseases like obesity and diabetes, and improve food security.

“We’re not just talking about how many fruit and vegetables people need to eat, we are talking about lowering people’s chances of an early death. 

“We are talking about whether grandparents get to meet their grandchildren or not.”

The research was primarily done through surveys, and researchers asked the women about their diet and access to healthy eating. Dr Farrell said it is clear that the participants have a basic understanding of what healthy eating looks like, even if they don’t do it.

Some suggested a healthy meal meant eating a salad, even though that did not include protein or energy foods. Others who reported enjoying a slice of cake each day wanted help to know how to improve their diet.

Participants reported finding cost a barrier to eating green leafy vegetables, and fresh fruit and vegetables more broadly. They also were heavily influenced by their social life, and would eat unhealthily if it was around them.

“They were definitely influenced by the cost of that food as well. 

Panikeke is the most desirable, probably one of the cheapest types of food in their immediate environment so that is what they were eating.”

The study found hardly any of the women packed food to eat during their day, and relied on their environment to have something available. Often, that meant cheap, greasy fast food.

Dr Farrell said convenience, low price and taste dominate food priorities, and currently healthy food doesn’t meet any of those requirements.

“There is a real need for price comparable healthy foods, in particular fresh fruit and vegetables,” she said.

“Part of the solution needs to be foods that are culturally desirable, taste good but also are satisfying for people, and that are not contributing to the NCD’s crisis.”

The research intends to inform policy, and one useful policy could be to tax unhealthy foods and subsidise healthy foods, the research suggests.

Dr Farrell said the two should work hand in hand, where the tax goes straight towards making the subsidy possible, and not adding strain to the national budget.

But fatty meats like turkey tails and mutton flaps are beyond taxes and should not be sold at all, she said.

“But then there are other things, like refined white sugar and flour. 

“They are basic staple foods that can’t be taken off shelves people are buying what is cheap and what will fill their families – white rice and white bread,” she said. 

“We don’t want to take them off the shelves, we want to switch the focus.”

Read the full research online at: www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03670244.2019.1582528

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