Cutting cost of fruits and vegetables could save 150,500 lives

For decades, the government gave out the wrong dietary recommendations. Its misguided campaigns against dietary cholesterol, saturated fats, and salt contributed in large measure to the epidemic of obesity, Type II diabetes, heart disease, and probably many other diseases that burden us today.

But what if the government adopted new dietary policies based on real science?

Some public health researchers at the School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University in Boston set out to answer the question. Using computer models, they estimated what various science-backed health policies might mean for heart disease in the U.S., looking ahead to the year 2030.

They focused on two areas where the science is clear: a reduction in sugar consumption and an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption.

First, they considered the effect of imposing a 10 percent tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. The computer model showed that a 10 percent tax on sugar would save 31,000 lives over 15 years.

San Francisco and Philadelphia actually put this policy into effect recently. In San Francisco, as I reported earlier this year, the courts upheld the legality of the sugar tax. And just last month, in Philadelphia, the courts also upheld the legality there.

I’ll be the first to admit that in many, many ways both Philadelphia and San Francisco need all the help they can get. But putting even more tax money into the hands of the crack-pot politicians who run these cities is like giving more heroin to an addict.

Effects of reduced fruit and vegetable prices

Next, the Tufts researchers looked at reducing the costs of fresh fruits and vegetables with government subsidies. (Logically that subsidy would come from the taxes on sugar. But don’t count on the politicians releasing that money for a budget-neutral plan.)

They compared the effects of a 10 percent nationwide price reduction on fruits and vegetables for everyone, to a 30 percent price reduction for recipients who already get food assistance under the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), also known as food stamps.

Turns out, a 10 percent national price subsidy on fresh produce for everyone would save 150,500 lives over 15 years. By comparison, the SNAP subsidy only would save 35,100 lives — about equivalent to reducing sugar consumption with a 10 percent tax.

Researchers said it was interesting that a national sugar tax would save only about one-fifth of the lives saved by a national 10 percent subsidy on fruits and vegetables. The lead researcher said, “this is not something that would be obvious without doing the analysis.”

But if he had read the huge study I reported last month, he might not have been so surprised. That study made the point that it is even more important to eat more healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) than it is to cut unhealthy foods, like sugar. The new Tufts analysis seems to bear out this important finding yet again. It also reinforces the need for a sensible, balanced diet.

Currently, the government gives out subsidies to those who grow (or actually don’t grow) agricultural commodities to maintain higher prices. But that money would be better spent helping to lower the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables for everyone.

The Tufts researchers didn’t calculate how much these subsidies would actually cost. So — they can’t tell us the exact cost of saving a life. But they insisted the cost-savings would be greater when you consider the costs saved in the healthcare system and increased productivity in the wider economy.

Of course, we can’t calculate the damages caused by the government’s promotion of all-wrong, all along, nutritional policies for decades either.

It has been like the Twilight Zone. Imagine, if you would, government nutrition policies that were actually based on the science?

“Reducing US cardiovascular disease burden and disparities through national and targeted dietary policies: A modeling study,” PLoS Medicine, 2017 (