August 25, 2021

Organic foods and healthy eating habits are more attainable among the wealthy, but more people are turning towards a better diet following the pandemic, according to the latest report from the UK’s National Food Strategy (NFS).

The National Food strategy was commissioned by the UK Government in 2019 as part of its plan to transform England’s food system following a landmark review “from farm to fork”, aiming to stop families going hungry and align the nation’s diet with UK climate goals.

The CEOs of several major food companies told researchers for the strategy that the pandemic had shocked them into wanting to do things better.

“You wouldn’t believe it if you look at our collective record in the past, but it is without doubt true. Something has changed fundamentally,” one said.

According to the report, highly processed foods – high in salt, refined carbohydrates, sugar and fats, and low in fibre – are on average three times cheaper per calorie than healthier foods and account for 80% of food sold in the UK.

The report claims that the commercial reason for this is that unhealthy food is simply more popular and companies invest more into developing and marketing. It went on to say that this is one reason why bad diet is a particularly acute problem among the least affluent.

National Food Strategy report finds pandemic has altered the UK's attitude towards healthy eating
The report from the UK National Food Strategy claims thatcompanies invest more into development and marketing of ‘unhealthy’ products

Currently people from the poorest households are much less likely to adopt healthy behaviours such as planning and cooking meals from scratch.

However, researchers working on the strategy found Covid-19 has put the spotlight on diet and wellbeing, with health conditions such as obesity and diabetes putting people at higher risk.

The pandemic has brought disruption on an unprecedented scale to how people live, work, shop and eat and presented new challenges for all areas of the agrifood value chain.

Consumer behaviour across Europe has been widely affected around food shopping, cooking and consumption.

Post-pandemic, there have been significant shifts in people’s intentions including a rising demand for healthy food and local and sustainable options.

The findings come from a study by top European universities from the EIT Food partnership, Europe’s leading food innovation initiative set up to make the food system more healthy and sustainable.

“These trends are framed by the challenging economic picture across Europe, making easy access to food at affordable prices the lead priority for our respondents going forward,” the study authors said.

They add it is vital for the food system and policy makers to use this “window of opportunity to innovate accessible and affordable solutions that enable these emergent health and sustainability behaviours for all and create lasting change.”

All of this has created a momentum for change in government and in industry, as well as among the public, with a widespread recognition that diet urgently needs to change.

British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver said: “This is no time for half-hearted measures. If both government and businesses are willing to take bold action and prioritise the public’s health, then we have an incredible opportunity to create a much fairer and more sustainable food system for all families.

“Of course it’s right every child should have access to healthy and affordable food, no matter where they live – and last year has been a stark reminder that nutritious meals are vital in keeping us all healthy and resilient”.

Analysis of the annual National Diet and Nutrition Survey shows that adults on low incomes are more likely to have diets which are high in sugar but low in fibre, fruits, vegetables and fish.

This pre-existing divide in diet-related health is one reason why people in the most deprived areas have been twice as likely to die from Covid-19, compared to those in the least deprived areas.

Changes to the food system will require legislation to ensure a level playing field, according to CEOs of some of the industry’s major manufacturers

One concern is that if food companies are to start making their products healthier, they must be confident that the competition won’t simply move in and undercut them.

But what the report makes clear is that there appears to be an increasing appetite for healthy eating based on both consumer and corporate behaviours.

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