Thursday 22 August 2019

Public Health England's great chess board

Yesterday, the Daily Mail reported the findings of a study which found that packaged food in the UK is healthier than it is in eleven other countries. This isn't very meaningful because the authors averaged out tens of thousands of very different products.

Useless though it may be, it's the kind of aggregate data that Public Health England is relying on in its reformulation efforts, so I wrote about it for the Telegraph...

A study recently evaluated the nutritional quality of packaged food in twelve countries. It may surprise you to hear that Britain came top and the USA came second. The least healthy food was found in two of the world’s least obese nations: Hong Kong and India.

According to the research, average sugar content of packaged food in the UK is 3.5 grams per 100 grams; the lowest of the twelve countries studied and less than half of the 7.7 grams found in China. The overall energy content of Britain’s packaged food was also the lowest. With 252 calories per 100 grams, our processed grub is much less calorific than that of India, where the average is 380 calories per 100 grams.

These findings may strike you as counter-intuitive. After all, Britain is one of the fattest countries in Europe and the USA has the highest obesity rate in the western world. But crude averages don’t tell us much about the diet of individuals. In the UK alone, the researchers found 68,153 different packaged food and beverage products to study. In the USA, the number was 162,297. Taking an average from such a vast range of options is almost meaningless.

The average doesn't dictate what people eat. People have choice. Even under PHE's reformulated regime, people will still be able to switch from low-calorie food to high-calorie food.

After citing this sadly overlooked study, I end with a bit of Smith...

The great economist Adam Smith mocked central planners for believing that they can "arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board". They forget that "in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it."

It is a mistake to see the world through averages. The bureaucrats at Public Health England should lift their eyes from their spreadsheets, heed the warnings of Adam Smith and remember the power of human agency.

Do read it all. It's paywalled but you get two articles a week if you register for free.

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