THERE are two ways to think about one’s unhealthy, self-destructive eating: the first is tragically, the second is systemically.

The new (English) National Food Strategy is quite a brilliant example of the systemic kind. It has already had its jotters from Boris Johnson, resisting its calls (only one among many) for a “sugar and salt tax”. I predict that it’s far from being dead in the water. It should also be read closely in Scotland.

But I’ll begin with the tragic version of poor diet – which is partly personal, partly biological and won’t get us very far at all. This is the great challenge of a fatal flaw (which is the core of tragedy): to ensure it doesn’t actually kill you.

I’m a sugar and salt fiend and have been all my life. The sugar part has quite a precise psychological and emotional location. It’s not to blame my late Mum. We both come from the culture of “ally bally bee” and “sugar candy”, after all. But it can’t be denied: I always associate the chocolate rush with my workaholic, midwife Mum coming back from her late shift.

She would strew Mintolas and Caramacs before her, hugging her saucer-eyed boys, producing a double shockwave of love and sensuality. Before we even get to our mammalian weaknesses in the face of this stuff, I know what sweeties mean to me: a deep centring and a sense of relief, however fleetingly.

My story of salt is perhaps more immanent: the well-used cellar on the domestic table, maybe even the nature of our national cuisine. But it’s no less verging on the extreme.

A clear example. I was delighted, a few years ago, to be able to introduce McSween’s vegetarian haggis to the vegan diet of my London family. For a little while, they managed to entertain its consumption beyond the usual Burns Suppering.

Until one day, cheerfully laden with groceries, I was quietly requested to give them a wee break. “To be honest, Pat, it’s just far too salty”. I literally had no idea. It was also gently pointed out to me that I reached for salt – though now residing in a Nigella salt pig and comprised of Maldon sea flakes – and scattered it on … every. Single. Dinner. No matter what. Uh-oh.

Behind the family memories and cultural preferences, lies the hardcore of evolutionary biology/psychology. The science is well known by now. For most of our hunter-gatherer history on this planet, homo et femina sapiens would very occasionally come upon sugary substances (usually ripe fruit, packed with calorific energy).

When we gobbled down these rare delicacies our brains rewarded us with pleasurable chemicals (dopamine), guaranteeing we didn’t miss the next chance to do so.

Yet while that ancient wiring is still part of our physiology, our own food cultures have streaked way ahead of us. We can now produce sugary substances that are free from all those tedious, masticable fibres you find in fruit. Nothing now impedes our access to the sugar high.

The American journalist Micheal Moss has written two books – 2013’s Salt Sugar Fat: How The Food Giants Hooked Us, and this year’s Hooked: Food, Free Will And How the Food Giants Exploit Our Addictions – which pull no punches on these issues.

READ MORE: Is the ban on junk food ads applicable to Scotland?

Moss calls out the food giants for consciously fashioning foods (and marketing) that taps into our ancient vulnerability to sweetness, saltiness and much else. In a recent interview, Moss relates one encounter with a former lawyer for Philip Morris (who are a food as well as a tobacco giant).

“We were just kind of chatting about smoking and his smoking habits”, relates Moss. “He said, ‘Look, I’m one of those people who could take out my pack of cigarettes and have a cigarette during a business meeting, and put it away, and have no compulsion to look at or take it out again until the next day.’ “Then he goes, and my jaw’s dropping, ‘but I couldn’t go anywhere near our Oreo cookies, for fear of losing control, because I would eat half the bag.’ And so to me, I think one of the most surprising, shocking things is how many insiders don’t touch their own products. Either because they know the health implications of that or because they know that they will lose control.”

Stories like this move you away from the tragic account of our food self-destructiveness. You know: we’re savannah nomads, vulnerable to the many sophistications that the ingenuity of our prefrontal cortexes have devised for us. What can we poor, forked creatures do? Are we fated to be Homer Simpsons, resisting all entreaties to better diet and exercise? Alas, alas!

Instead, we can move towards a systemic account (and one that’s more Lisa than Homer). How can we devise and design a better food system (composed of culture, laws, institutions and practices)? One that is better than our current commercial arrangements – dominated by what the Dimbleby report calls “our junk food cycle” – which exploits these old human vulnerabilities?

This is clearly where the National Food Strategy, in its tax suggestions, has triggered a minefield. The report’s director, the founder of the Leon restaurants Henry Dimbleby (yes, son of David), points to a successful precedent. The 2018 Sugar Levy on Soft Drinks drove manufacturers to “reformulate” their products. Which means they reduced their sugar levels by a third, while not passing the costs onto consumers.

WHY combine salt with sugar in the tax? Moss’s first book is intriguing on our craving for salt. He notes that our ancestors crawled out of a profoundly salted sea world. The hit could be no more elemental.

Our body-brain receptors and wiring fire up with salt intake – it seems in the same way (as one 2008 Iowa University study puts it) that “sex, voluntary exercise, fats, carbohydrates and chocolate also do, in their possessing addictive qualities.”

So with sugar, it’s a dastardly combination. But what Moss also points out is salt’s sheer usefulness to the making of processed food. Salt helps these foodstuffs stay appealingly coloured, masks their unattractive flavours (apparently, cornflakes taste metallic without salt), improves their shelf lives.

In Hooked, Moss also points out the massive investments in R&D that combines salt with other core tastes. The object is to improve “share of stomach”, “mouth-feel” and “bliss-points”, in the industry’s own creepy terminology.

So Mr Dimbleby’s top-line policy, setting thresholds for sugar and salt in foods that trigger taxes when breached, meddles with the sovereign right of commerce to game us as it likes (usually cloaked as “responsibility to shareholders”). In light of this radicalism, It would be very fair to this very well-researched report to cite some of its other recommendations.

The systemic emphasis – that is, how to build a better system to help us improve our health – is there throughout. Giving NHS doctors the power to prescribe vegetables as a response to the maladies of patients. Creating a Food Data System. Extending rights to free school meals way beyond the current Universal Credit qualification. And many additional educational and innovation proposals.

In Scotland, we should use this UK report to kick our own initiatives back into life. In the last parliament, Holyrood was considering a Restricting Food Promotions Bill, precisely targeted at constraining marketing on what’s called “HFSS” foods (high in fat, sugar and salt). However it was suspended in May 2020, for the predictable Covid reasons. Here’s a great opportunity to revive the process.

Personally, given my own body and biography, I’m probably up for a bit of “nanny state” around this agenda. (Though I agree with one of my correspondents that “any revenue from any tax should be ring-fenced, with the money returned to grassroots community food and health projects”).

But do I want my veg-tastic McSween’s to be a bit less salty? OK: get back to me on that one.