food2A new report released by ‘The Food Foundation’ this month called ‘FORCE-FED: Does the food system constrict healthy choices for typical British families?’ takes a closer look at what a typical British family eats and what influences their food choices.

The report looked at national data sets, primary data collection, secondary sources alongside interviews to compile a representation of the ‘typical’ family’s diet, where they get their food and what influences their choices.

The  Executive Summary of the report has three main findings:

  1. The diets of typical British families now pose the greatest threat to their health and survival.The report found that none of the family members meet all seven dietary standards that directly protect their health. Two thirds of their calories come from highly processed foods many of which are, low in fibre and high in fat, sugar and/or salt (HFSS). Adults are eating too much red and processed meat.

The diets of children are particularly concerning: 47% of primary school children’s dietary energy comes from HFSS foods, 85% of secondary school children are not eating enough fruit and vegetables, more than 90% are not eating enough fibre and all are eating too much sugar. Families are spending nearly a fifth (18%) of their money on food, throwing away the equivalent to 6 meals per week and not getting value for money.

  1. A multitude of factors in their food environment get in the way of the family eating healthily.Various reasons are seen to influence unhealthy eating practices. Advertising of food and drink reaches families, including the children, through multiple channels. Advertising budgets for unhealthy food and drink far exceed healthy products. Adverts for prepared convenience foods and confectionery account for 60% of food advertising spend.

Labelling is seen as confusing due to inconsistent use of traffic lights, portion sizes and nutrient claims.

  1. The balance of prices between healthy and unhealthy food is wrong, tipping them even further towards unhealthy diet.

Healthier foods are three times more expensive than HFSS foods as a source of dietary energy and the price difference is growing. Quick service restaurant meals which tend to be less healthy are on average £10 cheaper than meals in pubs, restaurants and hotels. The cheapest foods tend to be high in fat, sugar or salt and low in fibre and are often highly processed. In contrast, fresh fruit and vegetables are relatively expensive. Meat is affordable to typical families but carries a large environmental footprint.

The four recommended actions for government are:

  1. Set out a clear vision for achieving healthy and sustainable diets for all, with targets that can be monitored.
  2. Use policy measures to achieve a healthy balance in food costs.
  3. Manage the food environment so it enables healthy choices, particularly for children.
  4. Make it easier for consumers to know what they are eating so they are empowered to demand a healthy and sustainable food system.

The first action asks for support of the world’s new 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and build on the Paris climate summit and forthcoming Childhood Obesity Strategy. More collaboration is the best way to stop silo working practices in the government, NGOs and public health organisations. A suggestion is for the 2016 Rio Olympics’ Nutrition for Growth summit to provide a global platform to this commitment.

The fourth action point is to make it easier for consumers to know what they are eating so they are empowered to demand a healthy and sustainable food system. Supply chains for processed foods have become complex and opaque making it hard for consumers to know what they are eating. For fresh food, much more could be done with livestock farmers, processors and retailers to better inform consumers about the meat they eat, how it is produced and its environmental footprint. I would like to see dairy farming added to this list as more and more farmers move towards intensive dairy farming.

The report calls for a clear role for the Food Standards Agency to set standards around transparency and publicly available information about products on sale, development of digital tools to allow consumers to easily access this information and working with the media to communicate the information is suggested. However necessary this is, it is a call for an investment in new services at a time of austerity so the likelihood of this budget being found is very slim.

The report finishes with some sobering predications, the children in the typical family have very poor diets; one in three of them are overweight and obese, with all the concomitant psychological and health consequences; and a growing number are even experiencing Type 2 diabetes in adolescence. It can be hard to make healthy eating choices when we are time poor and sometimes cash poor too, especially when unhealthy choices are cheaper than the healthy ones. But unless we do we are sitting on a ticking time bomb for future generations.

There is a saying an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure and that is something governments should take on board when setting budgets on health. Cheap food is often HFFS food and the impact of this food on our health, NHS services and environment makes it problematic for us and future generations as well as a huge cost to already stretched services.

We need public health departments, agricultural departments and other policy makers working in collaboration to find solutions to this impending health and environmental crisis.

Another way to do your bit is to join Sustainable Restaurant Association and their Food Made Good Campaign, encouraging people to ask where and how their meals were sourced.

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