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Public health

We’ll look back on our diet today with horror


It seems extraordinary now, says William Hague in The Times, that tens of millions of people used to puff away on cigarettes without realising how unhealthy they were. How did it not occur to them that filling their lungs with smoke, containing addictive nicotine that made them want more of it, was “not a good idea”? I suspect people will look back with a “similar sense of incredulity” about the ultra-processed food we eat today. “Those people in the 2020s,” they will say – how did it not occur to them that filling their stomachs with “manufactured substances”, containing excess salt and sugar to make them want more, could do “a lot of harm”?

Britain’s population gets 57% of its calories from ultra-processed food – essentially packaged products containing ingredients you wouldn’t find in your kitchen – and the evidence that it’s killing us is everywhere. Nearly a quarter of 11-year-olds are obese, and obesity-related hospital admissions are up sixfold in 10 years. Record numbers are on sickness benefits, with 82% more working days lost in 2022 to heart, blood pressure and circulation problems than in 2009. Increases in life expectancy have stalled; “unexplained cancers” are rising among the young. The only good news is that policy can work: the amount of sugar removed from the national diet after George Osborne’s tax on sugary drinks was “equivalent to the weight of 4,000 double-decker buses”. Today’s politicians should be brave and follow his lead. You can’t have a successful health strategy, or even economic strategy, without a food strategy.