“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…”

Edwin Booth as Hamlet, 1870. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ah, Marcellus, something certainly is not right in the fair state of Denmark as of last Saturday. In case you have missed the hullabaloo in Europe, a new surcharge, colourfully dubbed by the press “the fat tax”, took effect in this small Scandinavian nation on October 1, 2011. As usual, it didn’t take long to generate a massive media hysteria. After reading over 20 reports on the internet and getting thoroughly confused by factual contradictions I managed to pull out the following info:

  • the tax applies to all foods containing >2.3% saturated fats
  • each kg (=2.2lbs) of saturated fat will collect a surcharge of 16 kroner (=$US 2.87)
  • the tax is introduced as part of obesity-fighting measures and $218 million US dollars expected to be raised will go towards preventative health
  • the goal of this intervention is to reduce saturated fat intake in Denmark by 10% and butter intake by 15%

As this article eloquently puts it:

“The new tax will be levied on all products including saturated fats, from butter and milk to pizzas, oils, meats and pre-cooked foods…”

Interestingly, Copenhagen Post was seemingly concerned about other foods items:

“The biggest price increases will be seen on fatty staple foods like butter, oils and high-fat dairy products like whipping cream and crème fraiche…”

Let me for the moment pass over the ridiculousness of the sentence which lumps an ancient traditional product like butter together with pizza and pre-cooked food-like-substances-in-a-box. To be perfectly honest, I know very little about Denmark. My impressions largely consist of Vikings, dams, environmental activism, Princess Mary, beautiful images of Copenhagen and yes, butter. So after 4 days of self-imposed post-exam laziness I got my iPad out and started reading up on the Danish health, economy, agriculture and food consumption.

Warning: a few graphs coming your way.

First a few Denmark trivia facts (Source: NationMaster.com country statistics)

1. The population estimate in Denmark today is over 5.5 million with population density of 129 per km2

2. According to the latest WHO data (2008) the actual obesity rate in Denmark is 18.2% not 10% as widely reported

3. Danish Big Mac Index is the fourth highest in the world at US$4.49

4. An average Dane goes to 6.1 doctor consultations a year

5. The life expectancy at birth is 77 for men and 81 for women, lower than in Finland, Sweden and even Australia (in your face, Danes! Even with our diabetes-crippled legs and sky-rocketing obesity rates we live longer!)

6.The average tax burden is 46%

7. Denmark is widely considered one of the happiest and least corrupt countries on the planet (not sure how it tallies with both #5 or #6 but good for them)

The World Health Organization updates a regular Non-Communicable Diseases profile for each country. You can look Denmark up here. Allow me share a few more interesting facts from that profile.

I was surprised to note that 24.6% of Danes still smoke cigarettes daily, a figure much higher than 16.8% of smokers in Australia or 15.6% in the US. If I had to choose a public health intervention…

Let’s take a look at the trends of some chronic disease markers as defined by the WHO: BMI, fasting blood sugar, systolic blood pressure and total cholesterol.

Blue line = men, orange line = women

Both average BMI and fasting blood sugar have been steadily climbing. That’s clear enough according to public health warriors. Butter -> extra calories -> overweight -> diabetes. This is how the conventional wisdom goes, n’est ce pas? Strangely enough, both systolic blood pressure and total cholesterol have decreased in the same period of time:

Obviously, this is just observational data and it doesn’t offer any causative relationship. Correlation does not mean causation (repeat this statement like a mantra if you work in public health). It could be that while the Danes still enjoy their high-fat dairy and meat their busy physicians prescribe them lots of antihypertensives and statins. If only we could get the Danish public to reduce their wicked butter and cheese habits, increase their intake of whole grains and vegetables and bingo! we would see those numbers plummet, life expectancy jump up, muffin tops melt away, relieved cows will be doing a happy dance.

Luckily my curiosity didn’t stop there. I wanted to see just how gluttonous the Danes apparently are. (Clarification: I don’t think they are gluttonous. As far as I’m concerned their government tells them that they are. I’m just following that logic). Statistics Denmark  kindly provides all sorts of fascinating data free of charge. I pulled out some food consumption data in Denmark and ran a comparison between the years 1990, 2000 and 2009. And in case you are wondering, I totally cherry-picked my data, using only 13 out of available 55, just because I found them most illuminating but you can look up the raw data yourself here StatBank Raw Data. Click on the chart for better resolution.


Human consumption kg per capita per year

Turns out that our butter-loving Danes are not eating that much butter after all: only 1.9 kg per person per year. So a desired 15% decrease in butter intake will result in…drum roll…1.6 kg per person. They consume 4 times more margarine than butter however thankfully their margarine consumption has also been declining in the last 20 years. What else can we see? Overall reduction in meat consumption since the 1990: 105.2kg to 83.6 kg. They certainly eat more beef and veal (18.8 → 24.8) but almost halved their pork consumption (64.2 to 35.8). Offal consumption is less than half of what it was even 20 years ago. In keeping up with the low fat trend, whole milk dropped 65% while white water, pardon me, skim milk jumped up over 400%. We have some increases in wheat flour and other grains, including a dieter’s staple, oats.

The other numbers that we are all dying to see are of course soft drinks (soda), industrial seed oils, sugar and the one I was always wondering about, a humble coffee shop favourite, the danish (do they even eat those?).

Overall Denmark looks like an awesome country: rich history, friendly people, gorgeous architecture. It’s a shame that their outgoing government in the desperate show of “we really care” brought a ridiculous tax which promises so much but delivers nothing other than panic at the supermarkets and more guilt about eating butter. I’d still love to come for a visit but next time I’ll bring my Lurpak from Australia.


49 thoughts on ““Something is rotten in the state of Denmark…”

  1. Fantastic. Sharing. It’ll be exciting (no, scratch that – devastating) to see where this train of thought takes the Danes 15 years down the road. Could the USA be far behind? Soda and sugar taxes are in the works; with the current thinking, there’s no way that Sat Fat could be too far behind.

    • Thanks Liz. That’s what I noticed in the media as well: “Should we do the same here? We are way more obese than the Danes”. Its funny how nobody notices the downward trend of sat fat in the last 20-30 years and asks why we are sicker than ever. I shudder to think that natural products will end up the loser while industrial rubbish will be altered to fit the new guidelines. Of course, it already is.

  2. Looks like it is better to bring your own butter with you if you travel to Scandinavia – due to the LCHF revolution in Sweden they have a shortage in butter now http://www.dietdoctor.com/butter-shortage-in-sweden. It is a strange coincidence between high fat tax in Denmark and raising interest in high-fat food in a neighboring country.

  3. “the goal of this intervention is to reduce saturated fat intake in Denmark by 10% and butter intake by 15%”

    And they didn’t first check to see whether such interventions worked in America and other countries?

    Here in America, our saturated fat and total fat intake have dropped dramatically, just as the first Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommended in 1977. Yet obesity rates have skyrocketed since implementing that recommendation – and though total lifespan has increased due to better medical treatment, our functional lifespan is decreasing.


    • Hi JS. I don’t get it either. All the data I pulled out was their own data, freely available for any Danish public health altruist to see. Their butter, total meat, high fat dairy consumption has decreased dramatically and that’s just in the last 20 years! So the solution is to reduce it even MORE to see the benefits? Like you, I give little credence to the total life expectancy figures: I see too many people lingering for years in a palliative care ward. Longevity seems more a function of genes and medical care to me. Health, on the other hand, directly depends on the environment.
      The scary thing about such measure to me is not the financial burden, however significant. It’s the government endorsement of the diet-heart hypothesis on a grand scale: if you eat butter you will die quicker. Let’s see how that experiment pans out for them.

    • I might look up those figures in the near future, Alex. If you like check out the links in the post, you might dig around and find something interesting.

  4. Argh I wish they would tax sugar and NOT fat!! I would not appreciate being taxed for my coconut oil and peanut butter, while others get off scot-free for sculling soft drinks and scoffing chocolate.

    • Hi Tara, I’m pretty sure they have a surcharge on junk food as well as a tax on trans fats. Both great ideas but I’m just not sure that that’s the way to go. Mass producers will use even cheaper ingredients to sell their rubbish while the small operators who still care about quality will suffer. Very frustrating indeed.

  5. Is it also worth mentioning that there’s little correlation between dietary fat and obesity? Dietary fat is, of course, not the same as actual body fat — they only share 3 letters in their names, and the similarities drop off rapidly after that.

    • Hi Brian, surprisingly enough it is very hard to get that concept through to people. “Fat makes you fat” kind of just rolls off the tongue. They will cry about 9 calories per 1 gram of fat from the rooftops because somehow it proves that fat causes obesity. To those people I just offer 1/2 block of butter vs 1 cup of M&Ms and ask which one they can put away in a few minutes. Nobody chooses butter.

  6. I’d like to go run around Copenhagen on Halloween dressed up as a human sized stick of KerryGold butter. Imagine the ensuing horror as people who gaze upon me have cholesterol oozing out of their ears. What fun!

    Or would I be taxed for that?

    • You are playing a dangerous game, Aaron. The poor Danes will be so starved for butter that I’d be seriously concerned for your safety. 🙂

  7. Interesting article and background. Yet, your research is also based on some false assumptions.
    For example, the fact that you assume cholesterol is a bad thing is a wide-spread and persistent idea. Primarily fed by industry selling all kinds of ‘cholesterol lowering’ medicines. In counter research it has been found that cholesterol actually does a lot of good things for you. Obviously, too much is not good. Yet, too little is not good ether!
    Now, at first I would find a policy like this not wise ether; I would rather see a society doing more exercise and incorporating a daily activity in their lives. Yet, the basis on which you criticise the policy, I find not right ether.

    • Hi Erik, I’m afraid my sarcasm does not always come across well via written word. I most certainly do not believe that cholesterol is bad for you, I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned it in my previous posts as well as my Start Here page. I was just following a very warped logic behind the tax and trying to point out their own flaws with their own data. I’ll try to be clearer next time 🙂

      • Hi Anastasia, thank you for the reply. Actually you didn’t say that you think cholesterol is bad for you. The fact that you used this as a proof, made me think this. And I know it is a profound misunderstanding.
        Other than that, I would actually agree on what you say; it is a warped logic that explains why one would introduce a fat tax.
        On the other side it is a shame that healthy food is more expensive than fat food. (I think Jamie Oliver has shown this in one of his shows in which he visits a British school and reviews the food the children get there).
        So to level the prices of healthy and non-healthy food, a fat tax might work; maybe this would be a more reasonable logic?

        • The pitfalls of talking over the Internet! Regarding your last question: introducing taxes to unhealthy habits does seem to work. For example, in Australia the latest rise of cigarette pricing has resulted in measurable reduction in smoking rates (don’t have the numbers on hand). I guess, the problem lies with what you consider unhealthy. The Danish government thinks that it’s the saturated fat, Jamie Oliver would say that it’s industrial garbage, I would also say high sugar, flour, seed oils, and anything I cannot pronounce. In Denmark this tax has a real danger of hurting the small farms with fresh (and oh so fatty) natural animal products. The big guys (The Nestles and the unilevers) will adapt and introduce even more non-food which will satisfy the requirements. What Jamie uncovers in school canteens makes me shudder…

  8. This morning our newly elected and appointed minister of food (and stuff) proclaimed that the fat tax is not high enough.

    Head smashed in.

    I cannot provide a link unfortunately, but a study concluded that the reason we danes are so happy is… drum roll… due to our very, very low expectations. It’s simply not that hard to make us happy.

    Tnx for posting!

    • Hi Jan, I was so hoping to have someone from Denmark offer their opinion! Thanks for your comment. Correct me if I am wrong but I was under impression that your last government was more conservative. So I guess I was hoping that the new guy would be a little more progressive. I guess I was wrong 😦
      It’s a bit sad that it’s the low expectations that is the answer to your happiness. I’m sure you have loads to be happy about. Do you think this tax will affect the way you eat and shop? Would it introduce an element of guilt or “naughtiness” to your butter and cheese purchases? Maybe you can jump across the water to Sweden, they seem to be on the right track 😉

      • Your are very welcome (and while I have your attention: ‘A different perspective: nutrition from a 9 year old.’ was absolute killer). Yes, on paper the last government was more conservative (or blue), and the new government is more progressive (or red/socialist) – on paper. In reality there is little difference (both pursue social democratic policies). We’ll see what these guys have in store.

        For me personally it will change very little. I’m a well off, near constant super happy primal enthusiast. I’ll keep buying my saturated fats (In Denmark butter from 100% grass fed New Zealand cows are sold at a discount)! 🙂 However, I live in Copenhagen close to Sweden and definitely will be visiting Sweden more often on major shopping sprees. I do believe that for some people it will affect the way they shop, though not as much as the government projects.

        I too would like Danish politicians to look to Sweden for inspiration.

        • Thank you for your perspective, Jan. It’s fascinating to hear from someone who will actually be on a receiving end of this nonsense. Good on you for sticking to natural real foods. Let’s hope many of your countrymen will do the same. Appreciate the compliment on Michelle’s post, she is pretty awesome (and I’m totally objective :))

  9. The only positive (well- potential positive, as I am relatively uncomfortable with any government making decisions about what people should and should not eat) I saw in the reporting of this mess is that apparently they started taxing sugary products a year or so ago, so at least they recognize (maybe?) sugar as the bigger risk? All the same- a real mess!

    • Yep and trans fats as well. Unfortunately all these measures are just playing into the hands of the big guys who can manipulate their food-like substances to suit.

  10. Hi Anastasia,

    I’m a paleo freak from Holland, aka Unilever Kingdom. We have a very strong vegan/vegetarian militia here. They are even represented in Parliament, in a rather big political party called ‘Animal Party’ ;-). The president of this party, a lady called Marianne Thieme, made headlines today. She applauds Danmark’s tax on saturated fats and suggests that Holland should improve on this ‘brilliant example’ asap, by implementing a huge tax on meat.

    The madness is really reaching epic proportions over here. Recently a team of highly respected Dutch social psychologists published a study which supposedly proved that ‘Meat Eaters Are Bastards’. All the newspapers swallowed this bulshit hook line and sinker. Some weeks later it turned out that the lead author, Diederik Stapel, had made up all the data. Just made up them ;-). He was fired by his university. His co author, a very influential social psycholgist named Roos Vonk, played devastated (“Scientists never check each others data”), but she now goes out with the message that the unfortunate fraud does not disprove the hypothesis that meat eaters are bastards.

    I don’t blame you if you don’t believe this, but it’s true.

    Good luck with your finals!

    • So all the data was made up, but that doesn’t prove it’s not true. Does this woman double as a Climate Scientist?

      • That logic seems sound to me, Mark ;). If you can’t prove something exist it still exists until you prove it doesn’t exist. I think I’ve just confused myself.

      • Sort of, indeed. Although she cleverly will admit climatology is not her field of expertise, she eagerly hints to ‘the desastrous impact of meat eating on global warming’. When you confront her in a discussion with the fact that aerea’s with grazing cattle actually form a huge carbon dioxide sink, she just ignores you. She also told a national newspaper that she is fed up with ‘all these vocal pseudo scientists’ off late, trying to downplay the causal role of saturated fat in the pathogenesis of coronary heart disease.

        It’s easy to just dismiss these butt heads, of course. But the creepy thing is they are quite influential in ‘intellectual’ circles. They are powerful. Luckily we are a very small country.

    • Hi Melchior. What you say is truly scary. But then again we should know that some people will stop at nothing to achieve their agenda, even falsify evidence. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Pingback: Coming in from the Cold – part 1 « 20/20

  12. The word Wankwits come to mind when hearing then reading of this. As you say, the small natural producer will be screwed just that little more as the big players find another, cheaper industrial ingredient to use as a low fat filler. Good luck explaining this one to your children Denmark.

    • Agree, we will see the fallout in the years to come. When this particular intervention fails they will say they need to go harder and hike the prices even higher: “Aim for zero butter consumption in Denmark by 2020!”

    • Interesting! So Unilever is thinking of dumping its food division for personal care? You may be right and they will decide to hang on to it a little longer now. The commenter from Holland also mentioned how ubiquitous Unilever is there. Wait till Britain jumps on board the “fat tax”.

  13. Pingback: Coming in from the Cold – part 2 « 20/20

  14. Pingback: Coming in from the Cold – part 3 « 20/20

  15. I’m afraid, very afraid, that the US is not far behind. Certainly the Media is discussing it. It would be tragic, indeed, if we and other countries followed Denmark’s lousy example. I so wish someone who has influence would check the facts–the real facts now before it’s too late!

    • Unfortunately, Peggy, many governments (including the US and Australia) feel pressured to be seen making a change. A tax on fat is a knee-jerk reaction: “We are very concerned with the obesity rates and now we are doing something about it!” don’t think fact checking comes into it.

  16. Sin taxes, and that is what the fat tax is, are ultimately about money. They use the Sin aspect to make people accept it as “for their own good”. Otherwise, why not raise the tax on pizza and not butter? Or why not simply outlaw cigarettes and whiskey? No, they want the money they get from the taxes, that is the real reason for a “sin tax”, in my opinion.

  17. A further comment… why not tax drugs for the sick? Then people would be forced to stay healthy! That would be the ultimate sin tax…and makes about as much sense as taxing fat.

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