Taxpayer subsidies for unhealthy foods

Image Credit: Rakka / Flickr. This image has been modified.

Our Tax Dollars Subsidize Unhealthy Foods

Why do food companies sell junk? Because unhealthy commodities are highly profitable. This is in part because of their “low production cost, long shelf-life, and high retail value,” which create perverse incentives for industries to market and sell more junk. In a study highlighted in my video, Taxpayer Subsidies for Unhealthy Foods, researchers at the University of Cambridge stated, “Coca-Cola’s net profit margins, for example, are about a quarter of the retail price, making soft drink production, alongside tobacco production, among the most profitable industrial activities in the world.” One of the reasons production costs are so low is that we tax-payers subsidize them.

Distinguished UNC Professor of Nutrition, Barry Popkin, writes:

“For more than a century, Western governments have invested heavily in lowering the costs of animal products and some basic cash crops [such as sugar]. Accordingly, Western diets have shifted during the past century, especially after World War II, to include more animal sourced foods—meat, poultry, dairy, seafood, and eggs [as well as more sugar and corn syrup]. During this same period, however, we have begun to realize that a healthy diet actually requires fewer animal products and empty calories, and more vegetables, fruits, beans, and whole grains. Redressing this balance is a complex task requiring not only a shift in agricultural investment and policy, but also changes in social preferences that have developed over decades, in part due to dollar menu meat.”

Why is chicken so cheap? In the nine years that followed the passage of the ‘96 Farm Bill, corn and soy were subsidized below the cost of production to make cheap animal feed. So, U.S. tax-payers effectively handed the chicken and pork industry around $10 billion dollars each.

What if we instead subsidized healthy foods? Or taxed harmful ones? Every dollar spent taxing processed foods or milk would net an estimated $2 in healthcare cost savings. Every dollar spent making vegetables cheaper would net $3, and subsidizing whole grains could net over a one thousand percent return on our investment.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on Big Broccoli. The produce sector lacks the extensive funding that went to create the National Dairy Council, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, the National Pork Producers Council, and the American Egg Board.

Even if we removed the hundreds of billions of dollars in annual subsidies for animal products, it might not be sufficient to tip the balance in favor of healthier diets. According to Professor Popkin, “We have created societies in the West that value and consume meat, dairy, poultry, fish and seafood. Over several generations, a particular way of life has been promoted that has shifted expectations about diet to include large amounts of animal-sourced foods”—the concept that a meal centers around some hunk of meat.

The idea that animal products should form the basis of our diet has been scientifically debunked, but remains the social aspiration of billions of people. As we in the West slowly come to accept that our diets and eating habits are not healthy, it is to be hoped that this will change policies not only here, but throughout the world.

For more on the power Big Food’s hold over our political system, check out videos such as:

My video series on corporate influence over our federal nutrition guidelines may also be enlightening:

And if we really wanted to save our country money we could start by trying to wipe out some of our leading killer chronic diseases:

-Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here and watch my full 2012 – 2015 presentations Uprooting the Leading Causes of Death, More than an Apple a Day, From Table to Able, and Food as Medicine.


Michael Greger M.D., FACLM

Michael Greger, M.D. FACLM, is a physician, New York Times bestselling author, and internationally recognized professional speaker on a number of important public health issues. Dr. Greger has lectured at the Conference on World Affairs, the National Institutes of Health, and the International Bird Flu Summit, testified before Congress, appeared on The Dr. Oz Show and The Colbert Report, and was invited as an expert witness in defense of Oprah Winfrey at the infamous "meat defamation" trial.

24 responses to “Our Tax Dollars Subsidize Unhealthy Foods

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    1. It’s a block of spam with Uncle Sam. Note: you can always find the image credit at the bottom of the blog for more information about the picture.

  1. Many of the foreign students my daughter met in college were shocked by how inexpensive meat is in the US. They were from countries where meat is one of the most expensive foods….which it really is in the US (without subsidies) as well.

  2. Here’s a question from an earlier video: Dr. Greger reported on how piperine significantly (up to 2000%!) boosts the bioavailability of curcumin, but stopped short, it seemed to me, of recommending that one routinely combine black pepper and turmeric to have those effects. In an earlier talk by Dr. Greger for Rouxbe Cooking School, he seemed appalled at the proposition, but perhaps he has changed his point of view? Since the effects might be quite significant, I’d appreciate a clarification re the desirability of combining pepper with turmeric both for 1) those looking to prevent chronic metabolic diseases and for 2) those currently coping with such diseases. Thanks!

    1. Cathy, piperine in black pepper increases the bioavailability of curcumin presumably by inhibiting an enzyme that participates in Phase II of the liver detoxification process. The problem is the same enzyme is responsible for the removal of some drugs and of some endogenous waste material. So, black pepper, while increasing there bioavailability of curcumin, increases the half life of some drugs, which is potentially dangerous. Longer exposure to endogenous waste material may have negative effects as well. On the other hand, a lot of people eat black pepper with food regularly, apparently without any problems.

      1. Thanks, George, for this clear explanation. I imagine anyone on medication that clears through the liver would be at risk if they boosted curcumin with piperine — a lot of people!

      2. I use turmeric powder in a small dose of coconut oil to dissolve it and then I put it in a smoothie. I assume this is ok since I don’t use pepper?

      1. Thanks Joseph – so anyone taking medication which clears through the liver should be cautious? If that’s so, perhaps Dr. Greger should express that qualifier, so people are advised before they jump on board the turmeric/pepper bandwagon.

        1. ….and the garlic bandwagon might also command a qualifier as John Hopkins Lupus Center has advised that humans with autoimmune diseases/disorders should avoid garlic as well as ginseng, alfalfa, and some other stuff. (John Hopkins Medical staff considered number one (or two) in the world). Everything “natural” is not always in our best interest.

    1. count us in…kale and spinach salad is a family favorite, but hard to find spinach and kale fresh–they usually go bad within two days unless you can find them fresh, which is really rare even here in the middle of california

  3. Maybe it is just wishful thinking on my part, but I feel a change IS coming, though slowly! People in general are waking up to the benefit of eating real food, at least more so than in the past, so hopefully the snowball will grow once it get’s rolling! The internet has changed our interface with information gathering, which can be either negative or positive, depending on your good sense, or lack thereof, but the point is we can now find the info we need, IF we know how and where to look! It annoys me no end to see the BS that passes as fact for the sheeple who NEED to believe what they always have, so merely continue to buy into the subsidized agenda with no clue they are hopelessly brainwashed! Dr Greger and others are the shining lights in this fog of noxious and dangerous “spam” (above)…ugh!

  4. I clicked on the link for “scientifically debunked” in Dr. Greger’s post above and then skimmed part of the paper. I didn’t have time to read it in detail, but one sentence made me do a double-take, and then a triple take, and then a head scratch: “Rare was the scientist, such as Weston Price, whose studies of isolated indigenous populations prompted him to promote a vegetarian diet, or at least a diet with minimal meat, grown in natural environments (Price, 1981).​”

    Wow. I wasn’t able to find the paper they were referencing to see more, but if this is an accurate representation of Weston Price’s work, that poor man must be raging from his grave to see what has been promoted in his memory. I *think* I remember Plant Positive talking about how Weston Price’s work has been twisted, but this is very interesting collaboration if true.

    1. You stumbled upon something amazing, Thea. I followed the link too after reading your response, and found the same. They were actually not referencing a paper but Price’s large book, Nutrition and Physical Regeneration – the “bible” of the WAPF. Except it seems the organisation just cherry picks the thousands of case studies that it the “high fat diet” they promote. This books is a fascinating read, but just as that Pub Med article points out in such a startling way (as you noticed) Price did not find that tribes who ate meat were big and strong and tribes that were vegetarian were weaklings. I ant aware he promoted a vegetarian diet at all; I am not sure where that came from – but he certainly wasn’t a proponent of high meat and fat for all as the only way to be healthy. I see his actual focus more on “no processed foods” as the way to be healthy… which I think we’d all agree with. It’s also worth reminding ourselves that he was a dentist, focusing on oral health, and his ideas about nutrition and general heath were not founded on research as we see it today, but hypotheses. Unfortunately, too many people saw them as facts. Thanks for pointing out this amazing statement.

  5. On the topic of the post, thank you Dr. Greger! One of my pet peeves is how unhealthy foods like animal products are subsidized. I have long felt that if meat cost consumers what it actually costs the world (including externalities–pollution, etc.), we would all be so healthy naturally. Very few people would be able to afford meat regardless of their cultural biases. Cultural biases would then (probably/hopefully?) change over time…

  6. Why can’t an Organic Vegetable Council be formed and begin lobbying in Washington D.C.? Lack of funding? Maybe. Who wants to see an Indiegogo funding project for “Big Broccoli”? From news reports, I understand that organic produce is making huge profits in recent years. I think it’s time to start this veggie council.

  7. When folks at work learn that I eat plant based, they usually defend their consumption of animal products with a claim that they don’t feel satisfied/full unless they eat meat. How do I respond to that? Is it to do with gut microbiome?

    1. I’ve heard that too. I think it’s because people don’t add enough starch to their meals. I’m not satisfied with a salad consisting of lettuce and chopped raw veggies, either. But when I add whole wheat pasta, brown rice, or a sweet potato, I feel more satisfied. I also like to add more protein and fat with beans, walnuts and various seeds. Now we’re talking about a meal not an appetizer.

      1. Like salads and fruit, pasta and rice leave me hungry–even if I literally eat more than my stomach should hold: every meal requires legumes, avocados, or nuts for me to feel full for more than 2 hours.

    2. Phil C: I think that Herb I. Vore gave a great answer, but I also think it is only part of the answer. So, part of the problem is that people don’t know *how* to create a healthy meal that will satisfy them.

      Another part, in my opinion, is psychological. Since it is true, my answer to such a statement (which I have heard several times before too) often includes something along the lines of, “I used to feel the same way. But as I started to eat more healthy, I realized that it was phychological. I was raised to think that I needed meat as part of the meal and that any dish without meat was the ‘side’ dish. So, of course I didn’t feel satisfied eating only a side dish. However, most people seem to find that when they start eating truly healthy whole foods, including plenty of good starches like beans and whole grains, and *enjoying* those foods and when they understand in their heads that such dishes are complete, then that feeling of satisfaction is there.”

      I also think there is a third piece to this phenomenon that you touched on concerning gut stuff. Have you seen this talk by Michael Klaper? Anyway, this talk is speculation, but if it is true, then it may be that the person really does require some time to adjust to healthy eating. And you could explain that there is a possibility that they have harmed their bodies with the food they have eaten so far to the point where they are probably addicted to meat. They could wean themselves off of it if they wanted to…

      Finally, the fourth piece is that there are some people who really aren’t interested in eating healthy and have never truly tried and are just saying what they *think* would happen if they gave it a try. (Because after eating the salad before the meal, they are still hungry.) That situation requires a different response, but it would be hard to give such a response because if might come off as calling the person a liar.

      Those are my thoughts. Does that help?

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