Sugar tax, subsidies, or labelling? New report offers guidance for better dietary habits

The report Policy tools for sustainable and healthy eating – Enabling a food transition in the Nordic countries supplements the Nordic Nutrition Recommendations 2023 (NNR2023) which was launched last year. NNR2023 attracted a lot of attention as, for the first time ever, it contains science-based recommendations for both health and the environment. 

The new report looks at what can be achieved by way of policy to enable people to adopt more sustainable and healthy alternatives at a time when science time and again is showing how both the climate and public health are under pressure.

“Changing our eating habits for the better is the most effective thing we can do for both public health and the climate in the Nordics. This new report gives us the direction and tools for the difficult decisions we need to make and the discussions we need to have in order to make things easier for people to live sustainably and healthily,” says Karen Ellemann, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Changing our eating habits for the better is the most effective thing we can do for both public health and the climate in the Nordics. This new report gives us the direction and tools for the difficult decisions we need to make and the discussions we need to have in order to make things easier for people to live sustainably and healthily.

Karen Ellemann, Secretary General of the Nordic Council of Ministers

Sugar tax, meat tax, subsidies, and labelling – what will get us eating right?

The report demonstrates how the Nordic countries can bolster their food consumption strategies in a variety of ways and create an environment that makes it possible for citizens to eat sustainably and healthily. The interconnection between a range of policy tools from nudging to regulation has been explored in relation to behavioural change. 

The researchers recommend a combination of interventions that take into account how different food-related, personal, and socio-environmental factors affect the way in which people react:

“If you want to get people in the Nordics to change their eating habits, it’s important to consider a combination of policy instruments and incentives. Although taxes and subsidies play a significant role, they must be supplemented by measures such as information campaigns and things to nudge them in the right direction,” says researcher Leneisja Jungsberg, who is a co-author of the report.

Five policy recommendations for sustainable food consumption

Holistic approach needed – no one-size-fits-all solution
We need to remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to effort to improve our food systems. We need to implement a raft of initiatives simultaneously to create a sustainable, healthy, and resilient food system. 

Roll out meat and sugar taxes, as well as subsidies for fruit and veg
Research shows that disincentives such as taxes and incentives such as subsidies have an effect on buying behaviours. This could include taxes on certain types of meat, a point-of-sale tax on drinks with added sugar, or subsidies for vegetables. If the Nordic countries work together on these tools, public acceptance may increase, which is often a challenge in itself.

Bolster public procurement and training
The Nordics have a unique opportunity to use public-sector catering as an effective lever to influence consumers to make better choices elsewhere in their lives. Public-sector catering needs to be tailored to promote sustainable and healthy alternatives in line with NNR2023.

Develop a Nordic climate label for food
Product labelling has a positive impact on consumer behaviour. The Nordic countries have enjoyed huge success with the Keyhole label, which was developed in Sweden to guide consumers towards healthier choices. The Keyhole has since been further developed and rolled out in both Norway and Denmark. Denmark is now developing a climate label for food that we can work on together and roll out throughout the Nordics.

Develop common Nordic guidelines to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food
Several of our large food companies operate across the Nordic Region. Accordingly, the rules should be harmonised to make it easier for companies. It may therefore make sense to work on the design of stricter guidelines and legislation to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food under the auspices of Nordic co-operation. As things stand, legislation in this area is weak and new measures are needed to limit the advertising that influences us, and not least our children and young people, to develop unsustainable and unhealthy habits.

The report has been produced by Nordregio on behalf of the Nordic Council of Ministers.

Follow the launch live

The report will be launched on 14 March in Stockholm and will also be broadcast online from 08:15 to 10:15.

The report is a sub-project within Healthy and Sustainable Food Systems, which forms part of the Nordic sustainable lifestyle programme.