The Future of Fast Food

veggies french fries vegetables The Future of Fast Food

A new study, published in the Millbank Quarterly, looked at the impact that government taxes and subsidies might have upon the growing trend of obesity in the United States.

Based upon their research, “nontrivial pricing interventions might have a measurable effect on Americans’ weight outcomes, particularly those of children and adolescents, low-SES (socio-economic status) populations, and those most at risk for overweight.

Even though they would have only a small impact on individual behavior, such interventions could have a large impact at the population level when applied broadly.

And what do they mean by nontrivial pricing interventions?

The empirical evidence supports a multipronged approach, especially for children and adolescents, of changing relative prices by both taxing less healthy, energy-dense foods and subsidizing healthier, less-dense foods.

Aaahhh, taxes and subsidies = nontrivial pricing interventions

The Justification for Increased Taxes and Subsidies


The researchers found that the price of junk food and sugar had a large effect on adolescent and adult rates of obesity.

Well, that makes sense. How many chubby little kids can afford a $29.95 Happy Meal.

As well, subsidies of fruits and vegetables were also estimated to improve children’s and adolescents’ weight outcomes.

Cheaper fruits & veg…why didn’t I think of that.

And finally, this price sensitivity was found to be strongest with overweight and low-SES children.

And it just so happens that low-SES kids have higher rates of obesity than their Richie Rich schoolmates.

So, there you go.

It’s all about the kids. The poor little fat kids.

fat kid The Future of Fast Food

Of course, it’s the fat parents of those poor little fat kids who are going to have to foot the bill.

And dammit, Americans don’t like taxes.

or, do they?.

Currently, state taxes on sodas and various junk foods are relatively low, and no state or local government has used these taxes to promote healthier eating and reduce obesity.

See, cheap subsidized corn + low “food” taxes = more Extra-Value meals per citizen.

But wait….

The same was generally true for state cigarette taxes before the public became aware of the health
consequences of smoking
, when cigarette excise taxes were only a few cents per pack and revenue generation was their primary purpose.

uh, oh…

But as evidence accumulated about the health and economic consequences of tobacco use and as research demonstrated the effectiveness of higher taxes and prices in reducing tobacco use, governments have increasingly used these taxes to promote public health.

Inflation-adjusted state cigarette taxes more than tripled, on average, from 1982 to 2007, contributing to a more than 160 percent rise in average cigarette prices during this period.

In turn, these price increases have been credited with driving most of the recent declines in adult smoking prevalence.


The days of Big Gulps and Super-Size-Me are just about over.


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Powell et al. Food Prices and Obesity: Evidence and Policy Implications for Taxes and Subsidies. Milbank Quarterly, 2009; 87 (1): 229 DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0009.2009.00554.x

Doug Robb is a personal trainer, a fitness blogger and author, a competitive athlete, a social media nerd and a student of nutrition and exercise science. Since 2008, Doug has brought his real-world experience online via his health & fitness blog, Health Habits.


  1. H. Henkes

    November 5, 2011 at 8:39 pm

    It all has to start with the way peope view food and acknowledge it. We
    should be eating foods that are whole, this means unprocessed and natural.
    Educate peope on what food does to you, you should control the food you eat and not
    let the food you eat control you!!!!

  2. Shaun

    November 5, 2011 at 7:08 pm

    First of all…ironic that you wrote this post almost 2 years ago, as the whole idea of a junk food tax is picking up steam everywhere around the world.

    Just read a study out of the UK that estimates that 4000 deaths could be avoided each year if certain dietary measures were initiated.

    They found a correlation between things like saturated fats, sodium and deaths. They also found that eating more fruits and veggies leads to decreased mortality rates.

    One of the solutions they proposed was a tax on “junk-food” and then using this tax income to subsidize fruits and veggies.

    I think there are huge similarities between a tobacco tax and a junk food tax…though, as you point out, they are not the exact same thing. Of course, you don’t need to smoke cigarettes…but you also don’t need to eat junk food.

    I am not sure how effective a food tax would be with respect to long-term outcomes…even though in principle I support it. For instance, say you tax sugary sodas to the point that they are less attractive…what will stop people from simply replacing that soda with a sugary apple juice instead? Also, what about diet soda?…there have been several studies linking diet sodas to weight issues even though the mechanism is less understood.

    That being said, even if the behavior isn’t discouraged but the money that is collected is earmarked for programs that educated people about eating healthy…well then, then maybe it would have an impact long term (and that is where I think it would be effective).

    Recently read a study…could not find it, but anyway, they essentially banned certain drinks from school…and what they found is the kids then simply substituted the “old” crap with “new” crap.

    On the other hand…read another study that found that kids who purchase their lunch at school were more likely to consume fruits and veggies than those who brought lunch because at least schools offered them some healthy choices…when many parents don’t.

    Clearly, this is a multi-layered problem. I personally would support a tax on obvious offenders like sodas…but then what about gatorades, you know the ones with like 30 grams of sugar per serving. (that’s about 7 teaspoons of table sugar) Seriously.

    I guess, I think the tax will only work if it is accompanied by a mass smear campaign against junk foods (IMO – processed foods – all of them), similar to the campaign that came out against cigarettes, and a mass educational campaign that teaches people how to evaluate a food fairly and accurately based on the general consensus (which isn’t always a consensus).

    Sure sugar/and/or processed foods get beat up…but…it is harder to demonize a particular food than it is to demonize nicotine (and maybe legitimately so)…even harder when so many sugary/fatty/processed foods are disguised as “health foods”. It really is a culture of crap…and a tax on a few foods probably isn’t going to change that…unless we change the way that people think about food and what qualifies as healthy, nutritious food. (and a tax may also help with that…to what extent I’m not sure)

    Bottom line…at some point, eating healthy isn’t always convenient and even if we can make fruits and veggies cheaper, we still have to understand and accept eating healthy may require more effort on the individual’s part. As a mother of four I easily spend about 2 hours a day preparing foods. Cutting up fruits and veggies takes time. Making food from fresh ingredients takes time.

    Read a quote the other day:
    “We need to stop promising getting healthy will be easy and emphasize instead it is worthwhile.” ~ Steven Blair

    I think that is a shift in food culture that we need to reinforce. Cheap and convenient foods (often) come at a price and eating healthy may not ever be as cheap or as convenient as we want it be.

  3. Mississippian

    February 17, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    This is the first mention I’ve seen on this particular subject. It’s right on and I’ll tell you EXACTLY how it’s going to go down for Big Food,.

    An unknown trial lawyer from Mississippi, the unhealthiest and fattest state in the nation, will sue a food company which produces unhealthy products. This lawyer will seek billions of dollars in damages for what they have cost the State of Mississippi in health care dollar costs. That lawyer will have the support of the state and win the case. The state will receive billions and the lawyer’s fees will be millions if not a few billion. Other states will follow suit and win millions and billions as well.

    Either Congress will change laws and empower the FDA or remove jurisdiction of the quality of America’s food supply from the USDA or states will just add vice taxes to unhealthy foods until it is way cheaper to eat healthy or at least not buy junk food.

    At some point there will be a Hollywood movie about the landmark case and future generations will look back and try to figure out why we were so fat and couldn’t seem to see the cause staring us in the face.

    This prediction is exactly how it went down with big tobacco except the Mississippi lawyer who made that happen is in jail because he got greedy on a later case and tried to bribe a judge with some of his billions of dollars. So a new trial lawyer will have to make a name for himself (or herself) against Big Food.

    • healthhabits

      February 22, 2011 at 8:17 am

      I suspect that it’s going to be a lot tougher due to the fact that we HAVE to eat while we don’t have to smoke.

      But, I am sure that junk food manufacturers know that their products are bad for us…the trick is going to be proving it. Perhaps a whistleblower will come forward

  4. Breakfast Nook 

    October 19, 2010 at 12:42 am

    michelle obama deserves to be listed as one of Forbes most influential women*;,