Weekly Food Thought: Fibre and vegetables

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In second weekly food thought, and following on from our article in the Guardian last week, we look at the latest thinking around fibre and vegetables

When the Government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition published its advice on sugar last summer it also published advice on fibre. In contrast to sugar, fibre has not been the subject of intense media discussion and campaigning, even though we typically eat much less than is recommended and evidence shows that dietary fibre helps reduce cardio-vascular disease, colo-rectal cancer and obesity.

Fibre intakes in Britain are currently very low. This is hardly surprising when you consider what we’re eating. New research published by the Food Foundation last week showed that typical British families are heavily reliant (for up to 60% of their dietary energy) on highly processed foods which typically have low levels of fibre.

After cereals, vegetables and potatoes are the largest contributors of fibre to our diets contributing almost one third of our fibre intake.   The Food Foundation’s research looks at some of the factors which might be making it harder for families to eat enough fibre from vegetables.

First up is price: research from the University of Cambridge has shown that fresh fruit and vegetables are a relatively expensive source of dietary energy, and so when budgets are squeezed, cheaper sources of calories will be prioritised.

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Typical families do prioritise spending on vegetables.  In fact, according to Kantar Worldpanel data, it is the food category they spend most on. But they are still not consuming enough.  Moreover, given relative price,s it is not surprising that fruit and vegetable purchasing is dramatically different between rich and poor.

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Second, fresh fruit and vegetables are not being thrust at us through marketing.  In fact Nielsen’s research shows that 60% of food advertising goes on confectionery and ready-prepared foods while a meager 3% goes on fresh fruit and veg.  Likewise, promotions have been shown to be skewed away from healthy foods like fruit and veg (Public Health England, 2015).  The 50% increase in numbers of places to eat out which we’ve seen in the UK in the last 10 years, are not, for the most part selling us lots of fresh vegetables.

The Food Foundation looked briefly at vegetable supply chain in Britain and revealed some interesting findings

Four indicators are declining:

  • Our purchasing of vegetables has been declining since the 1960s.
  • The proportion of vegetables eaten in the UK which are actually grown here is also declining – now standing at 58%.
  • Vegetable production in the UK declining.
  • The proportion of the value of vegetables captured by the farmer is also declining even though there are considerable margins added to farm gate prices.

Factors which are likely to be contributing to low producer prices and higher prices for consumers are as follows: the CAP subsidies received by horticulture farmers is the lowest of all farming sectors – principally because these farms are typically smaller than others and Pillar 1 subsidies are allocated according to farm size. The Groceries Code Adjudicator set up to help get a better deal for farmers in their contracts with supermarkets has in practice had limited powers to act.  Waste is a major contributor to cost of vegetables with significant proportions being lost through retailers grading standards and storage, but also a lot is being thrown away at home.

We need to be eating more vegetables to tackle diet-related disease.  We also need to be shifting to eating more vegetables in order to reduce the carbon footprint of our diets.   But production is declining in Britain which for highly perishable vegetables is likely to mean that our vegetable bill at the supermarket is likely to go up even further.  This is a problem which is set to get worse, not better.

Finding ways to improve vegetable consumption in Britain should be a key element of the Government’s forthcoming childhood obesity strategy.  The Food Foundation calls for an in depth inquiry into the vegetable sector in Britain by the parliamentary Select Committee on Environment Food and Rural Affairs to establish the ways in which farmers and consumers can get a better price for British vegetables.