Why Is Advertising Pesto Banned In London?

A London tube train passing through a station at speed.

Short answer
Transport for London (TfL) has a ban on advertising any food or drink that is classified as being high in fat, salt, or sugar (HFSS). That means pesto joins soy sauce, cheese, and extra virgin olive oil as being unsuitable for promotion on the whole of London's transport network.

Long answer
We've always found the UK government's HFSS legislation to be a woefully simplistic tool that lacks nuance and common sense. Anyone who thinks that extra virgin olive oil shouldn't be promoted to Londoners because it's bad for their health is quite clearly culinarily illiterate.

Olive oil is the least processed oil you can buy and offers numerous health benefits thanks to its generous amounts of vitamins, antioxidants, and monounsaturated fat. As well as having anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties, it is also believed to help protect against strokes, heart disease, Alzheimer’s, and type-2 diabetes. Yet, on the orders of the capital's mayor, TfL cannot promote it.

It's not just olive oil that gets the cold shoulder. Stock cubes, cheese, soy sauce, and pesto are all regarded as corruptible foods that should be avoided if you want to live a long, healthy, and preferably skinny life.

Earl's Court underground sign

In a recent blog post, we explained how the quantity of pesto that most people eat in one sitting provides fewer calories than two slices of bread and why nutritionists agree that pesto is a healthy sauce. But the government's overly simplistic messaging effectively means that pesto is treated as the pariah while plenty of far worse foods (e.g. cheap, ultra-processed white bread) can be promoted at will.

The legislation is hopeless when it comes to sugar, too. We all know sugar doesn't provide any real nutrition, yet advertisements for "diet" drinks are fine to be advertised despite the World Health Organisation reporting that aspartame, the most commonly used artificial sweetener, is a possible carcinogen. (Ironically, diet drinks are also known to lead to weight gain because they make our bodies go into starvation mode when the promise of an energy hit never materialises.)

TfL claims it has no choice other than to ban "junk food" advertisements on the orders of Sadiq Khan, who has the vocal support of the ever-virtuous Jamie Oliver.

Rather amusingly, when the ban came into effect in February 2019, TfL managed to ban itself by having to remove a wedding cake from one of its ticket machine advertisements. It also broke its own rules by displaying a NICE biscuit on a poster promoting its new app. It is said to have cost £4800 for the design agency to remove it. (You couldn't make this stuff up.)

NICE Biscuit

In an even more bizarre turn of events, TfL had to redesign some of its posters that were created to introduce tourists to different parts of the capital. Why? Because they contained cartoon images of, among other shocking things, a couple enjoying strawberries and cream at Wimbledon.

What if a cancer charity wants to use an image of a Victoria sponge to promote their coffee and cake fundraising events? Uh-uh, forget it.

Few people disagree that, as a general population, our collective diets could and should be significantly improved. Levels of obesity and diabetes continue to rise, and fat, salt, and sugar are undoubtedly major contributors. But does that warrant a nanny state response? In our article about the amount of salt in pesto, we talk about the absurdity of an obese Boris Johnson deciding on his ICU bed that he was too fat and that therefore the nation needed to lose weight.

There's a more sinister side to HFSS too, and that's that the wealthy implementers have no idea what it's like to have an empty fridge, a hungry child, and several days until the next paycheck. Rishi Sunak doesn't know how to pay for petrol, let alone know the price of a pint of milk.

What are the poorest members of society supposed to do? Buy a free-range, organic, farm-fresh £15 chicken from their nearest deli or a 70p tin of Kingsfood hot dogs* from ASDA made from mechanically recovered chicken (don't ask) and containing E451, E452, E412 and E250? Even more insidious is that many voices, including warmonger Tony Blair of all people, want to tax unhealthy food and drinks because they think that's a clever way to make poor (read: ignorant) people make healthier choices.

* They are actually delicious.

The freelance journalist Joanna Blythman put it rather nicely when she described in her The Grocer column "smug middle-class types who watch bedraggled shoppers heaving their Farmfoods bags home on the bus thinking, 'what a lot of rubbish those people eat.'"

So, while you're not going to see pesto advertised on London's transport network any time soon, when HFSS legislation is either seriously improved or fails completely, you may well catch sight of a pesto advert on the side of a London bus yet.