The National Food Strategy is a Government-commissioned independent review of the food system. Part One was published in July 2020. It focused primarily on reducing the impact of COVID-19 and Brexit, recommending a limited package of measures to provide food security to vulnerable households, protect the UK’s high food standards and ensure proper scrutiny of any trade deals.
Part Two of the Strategy, published in 2021, is more ambitious. To protect both health and the planet it aims to:
- Escape the ‘junk food cycle’ and protect the NHS
- Reduce diet related inequality
- Make best use of land
- Create a long-term shift in food culture
Here are some of the key points from the Strategy:
Escape the junk food cycle and protect the NHS
The strategy identifies how the food industry and the general public have become locked into a Junk Food cycle, with unhealthy food cheaper to produce and consume. As a result, in the UK, population level intakes of salt, sugar and saturated fat are above recommended amounts. A recent study found less than 0.1% of people adhere to all nine of the UK Eatwell Guide recommendations. Diets high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) are associated with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer. More so, over 60% of the UK population are living with overweight or obesity, whilst one in four children are leaving primary school with overweight or obesity.
The food strategy takes on board feedback from food companies, who say they are often afraid to go it alone in producing healthier food, for fear of being undercut by competitors, and who are looking for government legislation to produce a level playing field. It therefore proposes the world’s first sugar and salt reformulation tax, whereby a £3/kg tax on sugar and a £6/kg tax on salt would be imposed on that sold for use in processed foods or in restaurants and catering businesses. This is projected to lead to an average 4-10g and 0.2-0.6g reduction in sugar and salt, respectively, per person per day. In turn, this would lead to a reduction of 15-38kcal per person, thereby having potential to limit weight gain across the population. It is proposed that revenue generated would be used to support lower income families through increasing access to healthier food. The salt and sugar tax would thus benefit public health whilst reducing health inequalities.
Across the years, voluntary action by food manufactures to reduce salt and sugar has been slow.
In contrast, the Soft Drinks Industry Levy introduced in 2018 has led to a reduction in sugar in drinks equivalent to 30g per household per week. A salt and sugar tax would create a level playing field for businesses to improve the nutrition profile of their products. The suggested introduction of mandatory reporting for large food companies of sales of HFSS foods; protein by type; fruit and veg; major nutrients; food waste and total food and drink would also promote accountability and transparency across companies.
Reducing diet-related inequalities
With nearly one in ten people experiencing food insecurity in the UK, Covid-19 has resulted in many more families struggling to afford an adequate nutritious diet. Simultaneously, the prevalence of childhood obesity is rising, with children from the most deprived areas twice as likely to be overweight obese than children from the least deprived areas.
The strategy recommends:
- Extension of free school meals to all children in households currently earning less than £20,000, as well as to undocumented children and those from households with No Recourse to Public Funds (NRPF).
- Funding the Holiday Activities and Food Programme for the next three years.
- Expanding the Healthy Start Scheme.
- Trialling a “Community Eatwell” Programme for GPs to prescribe fruit and vegetables to people facing food insecurity or diet-related ill health.
These initiatives should promote the affordability and accessibility of healthier foods for low-income households, helping to improve diets and narrow the health gap between the rich and poor.
Food systems and environmental sustainability
With halting climate change on the global agenda, sustainable and resilient food systems are crucial now more than ever. Creating sustainable changes within our food system is necessary to not only promote healthier diets, but also for the health of the planet itself.
In the UK, food production and consumption represent around 20% of greenhouse gas emissions. To help meet both health and climate commitments, the strategy recommends investing £500 million over 5 years in research and innovation to create a better food system. It also proposes to increase fruit and vegetable intake by 30%, fibre intake by 50%, reduce consumption of high fat, salt and sugary foods by 25% and to reduce meat consumption by 30%.
The National Food Strategy highlights the need for the government and the food industry to work together if we are to shift the systems and culture that shape our food and diet. We welcome the recommendations proposed in the report. Leadership and action in creating a healthier and sustainable food system, along with measures to support the most deprived communities, will promote good health across all population groups and help to reduce health inequalities.
Some critics have pointed out that the fundamental source of food poverty is poverty itself and that, while cheaper fruit and vegetables are part of the solution, a proper living wage (not least for those working in the food industry) is equally if not more important. Having adequate space and cooking facilities to store and prepare food also matters, which means we need to add decent housing into the equation. These are fair points but given the Strategy’s remit was to focus specifically on food rather than society more generally, we feel the Strategy has probably gone as far as it reasonably could and represents a very positive step forward.
Nicole Musuwo, August 2021