Henry Dimbelby has called for a radical rethink of the British diet and food system, which includes sugar and salt reformulation taxes, as well as mandatory reporting of food and drink sales for large restaurant companies.

Dimbleby, who was appointed by the government to lead the National Food Strategy review, said his recommendations were designed to intervene in the system at multiple levels, with “concrete proposals for immediate action”.

They are designed to be implemented over the next three years, and described as “essential first steps in a longer-term transition”.

One of the key parts of the review is a call to ‘Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS’, which includes proposals for a sugar and salt reformulation tax, and for some of the revenue to help get fresh fruit and vegetables to low-income families.

The review finds consumers and food companies are stuck in a “reinforcing feedback loop” of addiction to calorific processed foods. 

“Education and willpower are not enough,” it finds. “We cannot escape this vicious circle without rebalancing the financial incentives within the food system.”

The government should introduce a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses.

This would create an incentive for manufacturers to reduce the levels of sugar and salt in their products, by reformulating their recipes or reducing their portion sizes, the review finds.

The CEOs of major food companies told the National Food Strategy privately that they could not make the changes without government intervention, and needed a level playing field if they are to start making their products healthier, otherwise the competition will simply move in and undercut them.

Modelling suggests the tax would reduce calories and could “completely halt weight gain at a population level”.

The tax could raise £2.9bn–£3.4bn per year for the Treasury (£2.3bn–2.8bn from sugar and £570m–£630m from salt).

“The Sugar and Salt Reformulation Tax has the merit that it is technically feasible, simple for consumers and businesses to understand, and enables industry to minimise the commercial impact and the impact on consumers wallets through reformulation.”

It is recommended that is introduced in a 2024 Finance Bill.

Meanwhile, the review calls for greater scrutiny of the food that is consumed, with an annual report on a range of metrics, including sales food and drink high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) excluding alcohol, versus sales of fruit and vegetables.

The CEOs of several major food companies have told the review that the pandemic “shocked them into wanting to do things better”.

It says the hospitality and supermarket sectors were “extremely adept” at nudging consumers towards certain products and behaviours, by changing their layouts and menus, using discounts and promotions, reformulating their own products, changing their packaging and labelling, and using their purchasing power selectively.

There should therefore be a statutory duty for all food companies with more than 250 employees – including retailers, restaurant and quick service companies, contract caterers, wholesalers, manufacturers and online ordering platforms – to publish an annual report on the following set of metrics, according to the proposals.

As well as HFSS foods, this should include sales of protein by type (of meat, dairy, fish, plant, or alternative protein) and origin, sales of fruit, sales of major nutrients: fibre, saturated fat, sugar and salt, food waste, and total food and drink sales.

Publishing these numbers would allow investors, government, and others to track whether businesses are “heading in the right direction”, and enable better scrutiny and maintain public pressure on companies to “do the right thing”.

The two key policy proposals are part of a raft of ideas that tackle different areas of the food system.

Others include reducing diet-related inequality with community programmes, and expanding free school meals.

Better use of land for the benefit of the environment and climate change, with farmers supported with to transition to sustainability.