Research published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health last week suggested that 3,200 lives per year could be saved if the government imposed a ’fat tax’.

It called for VAT at 17.5% to be levied on certain foods. The report, backed up by research at Oxford and Nottingham Universities, included baked goods such as cakes and biscuits.

The suggestion, which received wide media coverage on TV news bulletins and in the national press, was rebutted by many, including Maura Gillespie, head of policy and public affairs at the British Heart Foundation. She said that rather than concentrating on foods high in sugar, fat or salt, the government should focus its attention on encouraging the consumption of healthier foods.

Gillespie added: "We also want manufacturers and retailers who have not already adopted the traffic light scheme to put colour-coded nutritional information on all their products."

Richard Dodd, spokesman for the British Retail Consortium, which represents the major supermarkets, said: "There is no such thing as unhealthy food but there can be an unhealthy diet."

Gill Brooks-Lonican, chief executive of the National Association of Master Bakers, said: "Cakes and biscuits are a treat and often contain ingredients that are good for you in moderation."