What Happened to my Twinkie?

A number of food activists are pointing their fingers at snack foods, which they derisively call “junk” foods, and sugar-sweetened beverages as primary causes for the rise in obesity rates. These activists have attempted (and in some cases succeeded) to ban snack food or drinks in schools and increase taxes on these items to discourage consumption.  Many of these same activists believe that enacting such “sin taxes” will reduce obesity rates by causing people to consume less snack food and sodas.

  • State legislatures in California, Maine, Ohio, and many other states have passed or considered bans on certain foods and drinks in schools.
  • Maine had a 5.5 percent tax on snacks (soda, cookies, ice cream, etc.) from 1991 until lawmakers dumped the tax in 2000.  In 2008, its citizens voted to reject a 42 cent tax on soft drinks. Voters recognize the problems with singling out certain foods for taxation and have rejected snack taxes in California and Washington.
  • Washington State, Washington D.C., and Colorado each passed snack and soda taxes in 2010. Washington State’s tax was repealed by voter initiative in November 2010.  Legislators in 10 other states proposed similar measures, but were met with opposition.
  • Kelly Brownell of Yale University’s Rudd Center is the creator of the “Twinkie Tax” and has advocated levying taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, including sports drinks, fruit juice, and chocolate milk as well as taxes on “junk foods” such as potato chips, cookies, and candy.
  • Texas Agriculture Commissioner Susan Combs banned cupcakes from schools, even on special occasions. Schools in Connecticut and Massachusetts have instituted similar bans on sweets in an effort to curb childhood obesity.
  • The finger-waggers at the Center for Science and the Public Interest deem soda “liquid candy” and have called for the federal government to tax soda.
  • The New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene recently ran a graphic anti-soft drink campaign which compared the consumption of sports drinks and soda to drinking liquid human fat.

What does the research say? The weight of academic research finds that snack taxes and soft drink taxes are not an effective tool to reduce obesity rates, and that no one food is responsible for weight gain.

  • A 2010 study funded by the pro-soda tax Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that a soda tax of 40 percent had no statistically significant effect on the weight of individuals in the lowest income quartile.
  • A 2010 Cato study  found that “soda taxes are unlikely to correct for any real or imagined problems related to our nation’s obesity rate. “
  • Researchers in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition wrote in October 2009: “We showed no association between sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, juice consumption, and adolescent weight gain over a 5-year period.”
  • Writing in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, a team of analysts notes that “taxes on soft drinks may reduce soda consumption but increase the consumption of other beverages high in sugar and calories.”
  • A Harvard study in 2004 concluded: “Regardless of the definition of snack foods, there was not a strong association between intake of snack foods and weight gain.”
  • The findings from a 2005 a Texas State University analysis of a Maine tax on snack food indicate “that snack taxes may have no effect on obesity rates.”
  • A 2007 study in the Forum for Health Economics & Policy found that the “effects [of a 10 percent fat tax] are negligible. For example, the estimated reduction in fat would have no noticeable effect on a person’s weight.”
  • A 2005 analysis in the Review of Agricultural Economics concluded: “It is obvious that a small tax on salty snacks would have very small dietary impacts. Even a larger tax would not appreciably affect overall dietary quality of the average consumer.”  Because demand for salty snack food is relatively inelastic, a small tax would not significantly alter consumption.
  • A 2005 analysis published in the USDA’s Economic Research Service discovered: “A relatively small tax on snack food, say 1 percent, would have vanishingly small impacts on dietary choices and thus negligible impacts on weight or health.”
  • A study in the 2005 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology found: “Contrary to hypotheses, elevated intake of high-fat foods, binge eating, and exercise did not predict obesity onset.”

What does this mean for me?  Blaming one kind of food for obesity rates is overly simplistic. Snack foods can be eaten in moderation and are not a unique cause of obesity.

  • Calories are calories. Whether they come from a vegetable or a potato chip (or a soda), both provide energy for the body.
  • Don’t neglect physical activity.  A study presented at the 2005 Congress of the European Association of Agricultural Economists concluded: “Perhaps the more striking contribution of this paper is that “fat tax” or any nutritional tax will not curb the epidemic of obesity in the short-term…. Actions on energy expenditures (physical exercise, sedentarity at the workplace) as well on specific nutritional knowledge (how, where and when purchasing good products) may be much more attractive.” Physical activity rates have declined dramatically in the past decades and remain a significant factor in why obesity rates are up.
  • Sugar-sweetened beverages only make up 7 percent of an average person’s caloric intake. Any forced decrease of consumption would have a marginal impact—and could be compensated for by increased consumption of other caloric foods or beverages.
  • It’s easy for consumers to replace one snack with another. If potato chips cost more due to taxation, then popcorn (or peanuts, or granola bars, or fruit roll-ups, or other foods perceived as healthy) could serve as a substitute snack without necessarily reducing calorie intake.