Opinion: Don’t take Abela’s health advice

Robert Abela bragged that the prices of 15 food categories will be slashed by 15% from 1 February.

Lovin Malta asked Abela: “People are already saying that the food categories could have been healthier. There are french fries and no fresh produce. How do you reply?”

“I cannot agree with that criticism,” the prime minister replied.

Abela had a golden opportunity to nudge the most obese population in Europe to adopt healthier dietary choices. He could have chosen to reduce the price of foods highly recommended by the World Health Organisation for better health: fresh fruit and vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fresh fish. But none of those are on Abela’s list.

Instead, Abela reduced the price of french fries and corned beef. Corned beef, for crying out loud. 

Corned beef is a processed food, high in the most deadly saturated fat, salt and cholesterol. That’s the fat that clogs up arteries and is responsible for the majority of deaths in this country through heart attacks and strokes.  It’s also responsible for clogged leg arteries, causing limb loss.

Corned beef is a world away from fresh fish, fruit and vegetables. 

Abela’s also bringing down the price of french fries to encourage more of our obese children to become super-obese.  Malta has an obesity crisis, with 39.4% of our children and adolescents, according to a 2022 study, being overweight or obese, and yet Abela’s reducing the price of friable frozen french fries.

A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that eating french fries twice weekly doubles your mortality risk. That’s not surprising as French fries contain trans-fats, which pose serious health risks.

The World Health Organisation warns that “Industrially produced trans-fats are not part of a healthy diet and should be avoided”.

French fries are also usually packed with salt.  “Consuming fried potatoes increases the risk of obesity, hypertension and diabetes – all powerful risk factors for cardiovascular disease,” the paper stated.

They’re the most prevalent health challenges in the Maltese population. 

French fries also contain acrylamide, which is associated with an increased risk of cancer.  The FDA and the British government warned against consuming too much acrylamide, but Abela encouraged its consumption by cutting the price of french fries.

Also included in Abela’s list of products is regular pasta. Whole wheat pasta, the far healthier option, won’t get any cheaper; it will probably get more expensive.

Only the wealthy will have access to healthy food, while those struggling with rising living costs will have to make do with the sort of food the World Health Organisation recommends you avoid. 

Regular pasta is made from refined wheat.  All the fibre, protein and good stuff has been stripped off the wheat. Whole wheat pasta, on the other hand, is far healthier.  It’s better for weight management and sugar control.

Making regular pasta cheaper and whole wheat pasta relatively more expensive will inevitably lead to increasing consumption of the less healthy variety.

Robert Abela is doing the exact opposite of what the World Health Organisation recommends.

The World Health Organisation Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health was adopted in 2004  by the Health Assembly. The strategy called on governments, international partners, the private sector and civil society to take action at global, regional and local levels to support healthy diets. 

It recommended that healthy diets be promoted “through ensuring availability of healthy, nutritious and affordable foods” and that governments “review prices” of such foods.

Instead, Abela is reducing the price of corned beef and french fries. Our country’s poor diet and record-breaking obesity rates call for concerted efforts to address what is effectively a national health crisis.

As the tertiary health sector crumbles under the strain of the staggering admission rates for complications of diabetes and hypertension, our prime minister brags about making it easier for the population to access the unhealthiest of foods.

The sad truth is that the poorest in our society are the ones at the highest risk of heart attacks and strokes, Malta’s number one killer.

They’re also the ones who’ll be compelled to consume those unhealthiest of products that should become cheaper. The more affluent among us might afford not to fall into that trap.

What’s even sadder is that the poorest among us are condemned to an earlier death.  Part of that significant mortality gap between rich and poor is the type of food we consume and our choices.

‘Choices’ is the wrong term. If you can’t afford anything else, you don’t really have a choice. The only choice you have left is whether to starve or eat that can of corned beef or bag of french fries – and thank Abela for supposedly making them more affordable.

If you’re desperate, as more and more of our population is, you hardly have the time or energy to nitpick over what’s on your plate, as having anything on it is good enough.

Abela brags that Labour helps those living in poverty, but instead, it endangers the health of the most vulnerable by reducing the price of the least healthy foodstuffs.

The promised reduction in prices won’t just happen. We’re all paying for it, as Abela admitted he’ll pay small shops compensation monthly.

Abela could have used that public money to reduce the price of healthy local produce. He could have taken the opportunity to follow the World Health Organisation recommendations and encourage the consumption of healthy food while boosting the local agricultural and fishing industries.

Most importantly, he could have nudged the population to adopt healthier diets, reduce weight and live longer and healthier. 

Abela’s intentions in addressing food prices may be well-meaning, yet his obstinate failure to consult leads him from one gaffe to another.

Did he speak to his health minister? His measures won’t lead to savings for the public. Instead, they will push the poorest towards worse dietary choices.

Cocky and overconfident, the only thing Abela will achieve is to retain Malta’s top spot on the European tables – for obesity, diabetes and their fatal complications.

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