London Mayor Sadiq Khan has recently imposed a ban on any adverts for “junk food” being displayed on the Tube network. This is a grossly objectionable and illiberal measure which is preventing the advertising of perfectly legal products that are enjoyed by millions. Even if the supposed justification was valid, it is in any case unlikely to have any significant effect. It is just another case of “something must be done”.
The problem is that the ban is using the definition of “HFSS” food, that is food that is high in fat, salt or sugar. This includes many items than most people would regard as natural and wholesome, such as orange juice, butter, full-fat cheese and milk, and many meat products including bacon. So a company called Farmdrop who supply mixed boxes of supposedly natural fair trade foods found that they had fallen foul of this by showing a photo including bacon and butter. They wrote about it in pretty aggrieved terms on their blog:
Naturally, we were pretty shocked that a picture of some fresh groceries with a healthy mixture of fruits and vegetables, dairy, eggs and cupboard staples would flout TfL’s new junk food rules. But it turns out that TfL score foods individually according to a nutrient profiling model created by the Government. It’s a pretty crude measure and means that foods you would still think of as junk, like fizzy drinks with artificial sweeteners or low-fat fried foods, could in some scenarios comply with the new regulations.Yet they still say they support the ban on principle, just not when it happens to apply to them. Of course, “junk food” is a an extremely vague and subjective concept, and often seems to add up to nothing more than “food that working-class people enjoy”. This attitude is satirised in another Daily Mash article entitled It’s not a takeaway when we do it, say middle class people. As has very wisely been said, there is no such thing as junk food, only junk diets.
Take McDonald’s. Last year, the fast-food chain was allowed to run a Happy Meal advert during children’s television and it passed the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) standards for healthy food, which are the same standards TfL are now using for the junk food ban. According to the ASA, a McDonald’s Happy Meal is not a junk food product because 80% of the mains, and 100% of the sides are non-HFSS. But swapping out sugar for a sweetener or fruit for chips, doesn’t detract from the fact that this is still a fast food company promoting meals with fried foods to kids.
As with potentially “harmful” alcoholic drinks, any attempt to produce a hard and fast definition of “junk food” is inevitably going to be a very broad brush that will sweep up many products that nobody would have considered fell within that category. Again following the example of alcohol, maybe the answer is to employ Jamie Oliver to decide what is healthy middle-class gourmet fare, and what is artery-furring plebeian slop.
And the question must be asked whether it would be a better use of Sadiq Khan’s time and energy to concentrate on the epidemic of lethal knife crime sweeping the capital rather than engaging in such pointless and illiberal gesture politics.