The UK is trapped in a junk food cycle, with cheap, highly processed food taking a huge toll both on our bodies and nature, a landmark report on the nation’s food system has warned.
The National Food Strategy, commissioned by the government, presents itself as a “once in a generation” chance to transform the country’s food system both to save lives and safeguard the environment.
The report, written by Henry Dimbleby, cookery writer and co-founder of the Leon food chain, recommends the world’s first sugar and salt reformulation tax – adding about 9p on a 65p Mars bar – an expansion of the free school meal programme and that food education is part of the national curriculum.
It also calls for a drastic overhaul of the nation’s diet to meet the government’s targets on health, nature and climate. By 2032 fruit and vegetable consumption will have to increase by 30 per cent and fibre consumption by 50 per cent, while we must reduce the amount of meat we eat by a third and the amount of food high in saturated fat, salt and sugar by 25 per cent.
The report warns how poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year and cost the economy an estimated £74 billion. The UK is now the third fattest country in the G7 – after the United States and Canada – and one in three adults is clinically obese.
In the foreword to the report Mr Dimbleby acknowledged the difficulty of the task ahead.
“The food system we have now has evolved over many years. It won’t be easy to reshape it. But time is not on our side,” he wrote.
“Diet-related disease is putting an intolerable strain on our nation’s health and finances – and Covid-19 has only increased the pressure. For our own health, and that of our planet, we must act now,” he said.
But the reasons for this epidemic of bad diets are complex and are not simply the result of fecklessness and laziness – too much food and too little exercise, Mr Dimbleby stresses.
The report highlights the role of the food industry and the enormous change in our diets.
In 1980, around 57 per cent of a household’s grocery budget was spent on ingredients for home-cooked food. By 2000, this had fallen to 35 per cent, while the share of processed foods such as pizza and ready meals rose from 26 per cent to 45 per cent.
Eighty per cent of this processed food is unhealthy but our bodies are hard-wired to eat more of it, the report highlights.
“We are predisposed to pounce on any food that is high in fat and sugar. And once we start eating this kind of food, we are programmed to keep going: our hormones take longer to send out satiety signals (the feeling of fullness) than they do with lower-calorie foods,” the report says.
And because there is greater demand for this food companies invest more in developing and marketing it. Highly processed foods are three times cheaper than healthier foods and it is one of the reasons bad diets are more common among those on the lowest incomes.
“We have become trapped in a vicious cycle – the junk food cycle,” the report warns.
It also highlights the growth in ultra-processed foods – food containing ingredients like emulsifiers, colourings and flavour enhancers that are found in most shop-bought biscuits, cakes, ready meals and mass-produced bread.
This food has a particularly bad impact on health, although the science is still emerging. A study carried out by the US National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases showed that participants eating ultra processed foods were more likely to put on weight than those eating a diet of “natural” food, even if the calorie and fat content was the same.
The report stops short of calling for labelling of ultra processed foods but highlights how countries including Brazil, Canada, Ecuador and Peru have introduced dietary guidelines recommending their citizens eat less.
Dr Duane Mellor, a dietitian at Aston Medical School, who was not involved in the report, said there needed to be a “rigorous definition” of what ultra-processed foods were.
The term was first coined by a team of researchers at the University of Sao Paulo in Brazil who put foods into four different categories, from ultra-processed to unprocessed. The classification has caused some controversy.
“Currently this labels a supermarket loaf of bread as ultra-processed food, whereas an artisan loaf is only processed. This risks food snobbery which will do nothing to achieve the report’s aims of tackling food poverty whilst improving health.
“This needs to lead to an open discussion about how we can develop a healthy diet and healthy relationship with food in all our communities to lead, ultimately, to a healthier and happier society,” he said.
Naveed Sattar, professor of metabolic medicine at the University of Glasgow, welcomed the “timely” report and said if the UK was to avoid becoming the “sick man” of Europe a change in diets was crucial.
“Unhealthy diets are the major cause of obesity, and contribute to considerable ill health in the UK, more so than many people or doctors realise. The best way to improve diets would be to improve the quality of the food that is sold or available so that there are far less unhealthy choices and more healthier choices available and at lower costs.
“The result would be more people adopting healthier diets without conscious effort, a win-win for society and individuals,” he said.
The report also focuses on how inequality impacts the food we eat. Children from the least well-off 20 per cent of families consume around 29 per cent less fruit and vegetables, 75 per cent less oily fish, and 17 per cent less fibre per day than children from the most well off 20 per cent.
Children growing up in the poorest areas also tend to be fatter and shorter than their richer counterparts. Poor nutrition is linked to stunting – where children are too short for their age – and tends to be associated with low and middle income countries. But it is clear that it may also be a problem in the UK too.
But Dr Mellor said that to tackle food poverty, poverty itself must be tackled.
“Cheaper fruit and vegetables are part of the solution, but adequate food storage and preparation facilities seem to be overlooked and are a significant issue for many, with a cupboard, a small fridge and a microwave with a hotplate, along with a few pots and pans being the extent of their kitchen at home.
“To reduce food security, we need to tackle the underlying issues of inadequate housing and poverty itself.”
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