Cutting the Fat? Fat Chance | Civil Eats

Cutting the Fat? Fat Chance

Recently, I went to a local grocery store in Copenhagen, Denmark, where I live, to pick up ingredients for my daughter’s birthday cake. One problem: There was no butter to be found.

On October 1, there was a new tax, a fat tax specifically on saturated fat. Leading up to this date, as if someone had announced the Fatpocalypse, the grocery was filled with long lines and no goods. Except for a few forlorn cartons of skim milk, fat-free yogurt, and a lone package of margarine, dairy, meat, and frozen food cases were empty.

To many familiar with Danish butter or bacon, this seems like a bad joke. For years the Danes were renowned for their dairy and pork products; so much so that German soldiers stationed in occupied Denmark during World War II called it the “whipped cream” front. Denmark, blessed with rich, alluvial soil, basically supplied Germany’s front lines in WWII without having to starve their own country first.

Denmark is not starving now either. It is the first country in the world to institute a “fat” tax (following a previously instituted sugar tax) of 2.3 percent. In real money this adds 16 Danish Kroners per kilogram of saturated fat (about $1.32 per pound of saturated fat). Thus, for a pound of butter, the tax amounts to be about an extra dollar; for a burger, the amount would be about an extra $.15 at the till. And that Danish? It will cost an extra 10 cents. 

In passing the law, the Danish Parliament, then a center-right government, had 90 percent of the votes.  This is in great contrast to American conservative parties that have made a concerted effort to block any and all efforts to incentivize healthy eating. And even with huge opposition from big food lobbyists and industry organizations, such as the Danish Meat Processors’ Association and Danish Business, the law flew through Parliament.

After passing the law, the tax minister at the time, Troels Lund Poulsen, said, the tax will not prevent anyone from eating well: “It will still be possible to make a healthy lunch [for] the kids without paying the fat tax, if, for example, [parents] make a lunchbox with fish cuts, eggs, turkey slices, tomatoes, and fruit.”

Beyond the weekend hoarding, the tax has been accepted by the population with relatively little grumbling (and this is a country that already has a VAT of 25 percent on all goods, including foodstuffs). Furthermore, as Denmark has an obesity rate of 10 percent (compared to 33.8 percent in the U.S.), one could question the need for such a tax.

To many Americans this seems unbelievable. While several food writers, such as Mark Bittman and Michael Pollan, have suggested a tax on unhealthy foods, everyone from the agribusiness, to Big Food (and their lobbyists) to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) have opposed the idea. The most common excuse is that taxes will not teach Americans how to eat healthier and it is not government’s responsibility to tell us how to eat–that is up to parents and individuals.

Another excuse says such a tax would hit poor families the hardest. Repeatedly groups such as Americans Again Food Taxes (funded by Coke, Pepsi, Jack-in-the Box, and other big food companies) have run ads on television and newspapers lamenting how another food tax would undermine fragile household economies.

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But the worst catcall is that of the “Food Nazi” or “Food Police.” Glenn Beck, conservative pundit, probably summed it up best for this group: “Get away from my French fries, Mrs. Obama!…First politician that comes up to me with a carrot stick, I’ve got a place for it. And it’s not in my tummy.” For many in the Republican Party, the Cato Institute and the Tea Party, any food tax would basically be akin to taking away our right to die of heart attacks.

In Denmark, food lobbies said the same thing, and yet nobody was fooled by the ridiculously self-serving logic of Big Food and its allies. But to really understand the difference between Denmark and the U.S. when it comes to a fat tax, there is really only one word: Money.

According to the World Health Organization, the number one killer in Denmark is heart disease, counting for 15 percent of all deaths and costing the country about 1 billion dollars a year in health costs and lost productivity. The tax is estimated to bring in $272 million in revenue. When Denmark, like other EU countries, has to deal with a deficit on their hands (around 4 percent of GDP), these figures aren’t chump change.

According to the U.S. Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease and stroke account for 33.6 percent of all deaths in the U.S., costing the U.S. $444 billion in 2010. According to the U.S. Office of the Actuary, the total amount spent on health care in 2009 was $2.5 trillion (about 17 percent of GDP), more than any other country in the world. That’s one in six health care dollars spent on these diseases. And that’s not including all the other dollars that are spent on other obesity-related diseases, such as Type 2 diabetes, cancer, and respiratory problems.

Of course this doesn’t include the most pernicious factor about obesity: What sociologists call the health-wealth gradient. In other words, the more obese you are, the more likely you are to be poor and ill. The more ill you are, the more likely you are to be obese and poor. And the poorer you are, the more likely you are to be ill and obese.

If the U.S. were to just tax an extra 2 percent on fast food, $2.2 billion dollars could be raised and invested in prevention and health services. As fast food spending is discretionary, it wouldn’t eat into people’s budgets. And even those who have no other options than to eat fast food (e.g., those living in food deserts), a fast food tax could be spent developing healthy eating solutions, such as farmers’ markets or grocery stores, for their respective areas. And budget hawks–you’re not neglected–you would save billions in Medicare and Medicaid costs.

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How are we to solve this? Well, taxes won’t entirely do it alone. It will take a concerted effort of parents, government, public health officials, insurers, and corporations, to realize that “potential” costs are actually real costs right now. We are literally going to have to pay it forward. But hey–doing that would be just so un-American!  


Evelyn Kim is a writer based in Copenhagen specializing in food, science and history. She has been mentioned in and has written for several publications, including the New York Times, The Atlantic and Scientific American. Currently she is working on a project with the New York Academy of Medicine on the relationship between food, medicine, and society. Read more >

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  1. While I understand the ethical and economic arguments, the "saturated fat tax" is misguided. If you look at traditional foods, saturated and animal fats are always included in foods and diets, because our body is composed of saturated fats and cholesterol.

    We have become a society that thinks "fat is horrible," and we are starving because of it. I know several children whose parents denied them whole milk because they did not want them to be fat. Unfortunately, this causes lasting health implications for them later in life.

    If we want to implement a tax strategy in the US, I would suggest a tax on artificial ingredients, and a subsidy for fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and eggs. Also, ending government subsidies on commodity crops, and adding subsidies for fresh produce would lower the cost of real food.
  2. Richard
    There are three basic fats: saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated. There is nothing wrong with the first two; polyunsaturated fats are generally unhealthy and have more to do with heart disease than healthy saturated and monounsaturate fats. You seem to lump them all together indiscriminately. You do no one a service by doing this. As for the Danish, they are making a huge mistake by trying to discourage the consumption of saturated and monounsaturated fats. They would do a lot better to tax the hell out of wheat, fructose and vegetable oils. Full fat dairy and grass-fed red meat among the most healthy food choices people can make. There is no such thing as heart-healthy whole wheat bread. Fast food is not unhealthy because of saturated fat; it's unhealthy because of wheat, polyunsaturated fat and high fructose corn syrup.
  3. There was once an article written debunking claims about the dangers of saturated fat on a little known website.
  4. Well said, Richard. The anti-saturated fat campaign should never have happened.
  5. Taxing butter more than margarine or vegetable oils is ridiculous. Really, they should be taxing margarine more than butter!

    Fat is not the enemy. We need fats, especially children, for brain development and general health. Adequate fat intake helps women conceive (I think, anyway) and is much more satisfying than something fat free, but sugar-laden.

    If anything, a tax on refined sugar, HFCS, and junk food would make MUCH more sense.

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