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Weekly Food Thought: Our Food Future – will healthy eating become easier?

Last week we attended two events considering our food future – the City Food Lecture with Christophe Jouan’s view on what we’ll be eating 20 years from now and the Food Standards Agency summit on Our Food Future which aimed to identify actions to allow consumers to have a stronger say in our future food (underpinned by a new research report).

While there is certainly change afoot in the food we eat, whether it will become easier to eat healthily is not at all clear.

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Convenience is king but will it help us to eat more healthily?

Consumers want convenience and the food industry is working at pace to deliver it. The FSA research showed us that consumers want and love convenience but they don’t want it at any cost. They’re worried about losing our connection with food – cooking less, eating together less, wasting more and all that goes with that.

Where will be the biggest changes be? Kantar don’t expect us to be actually shopping any more frequently – we typically do one large shop about once a fortnight and a series of top-up shops in between. They show that contrary to popular belief our shopping frequency has remained fairly static in recent years (see below), but one of the big potential changes is shifting our top-up shopping from the local supermarket to online. While there’s been a big growth in online grocery shopping, up until now its been focused on the big, fortnightly shop. Whether its Hello Fresh or Amazon Fresh, if the industry can tackle the logistics and deliver efficiently some of us might see our top-up shopping channel shift and with that could come a different range of suppliers and quality options.

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The other big change is in relation to eating-out. Our research shows that in the last 10 years there has been a huge 53% increase in the number of places to eat out. There are now more places to eat out than to buy groceries. Quick service dominates, but doesn’t tend to offer the healthiest options (as we were reminded this week by the data on sugar in coffee shops). Convenience in eating-out and on-the-go will only make healthy eating easier if there is a revolution in healthy fresh options at a cost affordable to everyday people and not just the urban elites.

Will we be eating less meat?

We need to be eating less red and processed meat for our health and we need to be eating more plant-based foods to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with our diets. Force-Fed showed a small shift in the right direction could reduce our diet-related emissions by 17%. Shifting to meat which is not grain-fed could offer opportunities for both health and environment. Last week a new systematic review on the nutritional content of red meat showed signs of better fatty acid profiles in organic meat which is often (though not always) reared on a higher ratio of grass to grain.

Interestingly, Jouan presented data at the City Food lecture which showed that 68% of the UK population are in fact flexitarians and willing to moderate their meat consumption (7% do not eat meat, and 25% say they will never moderate their meat intake) suggesting there good scope for dietary shifts, if only the public messaging on meat could be clearer. But as with everything else we need a food environment which supports this shift. When we analysed the McDonald’s UK menu only three out of 23 main course items were meat free but we also showed that cutting-edge school meal provider GSPlus frequently had meat free days on their school meal menu.

Currently there is little leadership on this from the government (though good to see PHE’s Louis Levy blog last week), even though it’s clear that without action to help us eat less and better meat, our commitments to keep the rise in world temperatures under two degrees will not be met. Research from both the FSA and Which? show that when consumers become aware of the issues they are often willing to shift their habits, but many are currently in the dark.

Will data empower us to demand a healthier foods with a smaller carbon footprint?

One staggering fact – 90% of the world’s data that has ever been generated has been generated in the last 2 years. We’re entering the age when a cup can track your calorie and caffeine consumption or a fridge can order you milk when you’re running low. And yet, we still can’t find out how much added sugar is in a brand leading yoghurt or trace the ingredients of a ready meal! Who owns the data and whether it can be harnessed for the public good is key. Consumers are concerned that the food system has become more opaque; data offers the key to making it more transparent. But will it? The UK is doing some cutting edge work on open data across many sectors including food, and there’s certainly scope to make sure this work delivers for consumers.

Will healthy food be cheaper than unhealthy food?

The FSA’s conclusions were stark – “consumers are worried that food is becoming a class issue”. They perceive “a divide between the haves and the have nots in the kind of food they eat”. Force-fed showed that calorie for calorie, healthy foods cost three times more than unhealthy foods.

Price is a very contested space – there are those who think we should be paying more for our food (especially meat, taking into account the externalized environmental costs associated with it). They claim that the race to the bottom puts too much pressure on producers and creates greater pressure and opportunity for food crime. Others underscore the importance of low prices noting the connections between civil unrest and food prices and the rising numbers of people experiencing food poverty in Britain and beyond. Our report considers both these views and calls for a more concerted effort to use policy instruments to get a better balance of prices in the food basket. Government already indirectly intervenes on price (through agricultural subsidies, renewable energy tariffs, waste policy etc) and these policy instruments could be used more deliberately to make healthy and sustainable eating easier.

So will consumers have a say?

The pressures on our food system to produce more with a smaller footprint, waste less, keep prices steady and at the same time address all forms of malnutrition are immense. Change will happen, but there are real risks that the change process is not harnessed and led to make healthy and sustainable eating easier for everyday people, and especially those on a low income.

Jouan cites evidence that new business ideas and models are starting to disrupt the status quo, citing the huge numbers of start-ups, many of which are attracting unprecedented levels of private investment. But, according to the FSA, consumers want more from government. They want visible and strong leadership which goes beyond food safety; they want leadership which sets limits on the proportion of the food chain driven by profit objectives; they want much of which is currently missing from our food policy.

The FSA has shown great leadership in convening the summit. Catherine Brown and her colleagues should feel emboldened by this process to do all they can to address people’s concerns.

They could start here:

  1. Help engender leadership on food policy across government joining up discussion on health and environmental sustainability and bringing people’s concerns to the fore. A quick win would be securing government endorsement of the Principles of Healthy and Sustainable Eating Patterns.
  2. Develop transparency standards for business – key metrics which allow data which are readily available (but not publicly available) to be translated into information which is useful (and empowering) for consumers – whether it’s on the environmental footprint of different types of meat or the nutritional profile of processed food. These standards must apply to eating out as well as retail. The FSA could then periodically publish data on levels of achievement against the standards. We need a race to the top on transparency.
  3. Shine a light on new, win-win approaches. Consumers want convenient, affordable, healthy, waste-reducing food which helps to maintain social connections – where are the examples of best practice? The FSA could help to bring the best approaches to light from the UK and abroad, get consumer views on whether they are effective, and identify policy barriers which may prevent them from going to scale.