Food Prices and Obesity

Evidence and Policy Implications for Taxes and Subsidies

This article examines whether increasing the price of unhealthy foods can change patterns of food consumption and individual weight outcomes. Food taxes or subsidies have been raised as potential means of addressing the obesity epidemic in the United States.

The authors conducted a review of English-language articles published between 1990 and 2008 that analyzed the relationship between food pricing and consumption.

Key Findings:

  • Statistically significant associations did exist in some studies between pricing and body mass indexes, but the effects were generally small.
  • In some cases, the relationship between pricing and body mass index was stronger for people at risk for overweight and for low-income populations.

Small taxes or subsidies for calorie-dense, unhealthy foods are unlikely to produce significantly lower body mass indexes. More research is needed to address the potential impact of larger price interventions.

This article is part of a special issue on obesity in the March 2009 edition of The Milbank Quarterly available free of charge throughout 2009 at Wiley-Blackwell.