20 million adults cannot afford healthy food, say think tank estimates

Demos report urges government to build on obesity strategy by subsidising health foods, targeting packaging warning labels and investing in research into to meat alternatives

Healthy foods are out of reach for the country’s poorest people because they cannot find them in shops near where they live or afford to buy them, claims a new report from cross-party think tank Demos.

Their Turn the Tables report explored public attitudes towards healthy eating based on a survey of 1,000 Brits and expert interviews and found that the food market in the UK is not working for consumers.

Demos researchers found that there are too many barriers for people to eat healthily with estimates based on their findings reporting that 20 million adults cannot afford healthy foods while 19 million find themselves in food deserts, unable to find healthy foods in shops where they live.

Both cost and ease drive people towards unhealthy foods – as is the case for a third of the people surveyed with taste the main driver for 43 per cent of people. Although 40 per cent of the consumers quizzed said that healthy foods tasted better – more than 25 per cent preferred the taste of unhealthy foods.

There is an opportunity for the government to be even bolder, and pioneers for a new era of food innovation

But nearly a fifth of those earning under £20,000 say cost is the most important reason for relying on unhealthy foods in their diet. That’s twice as likely as those earning £40,000 and above.

Boris Johnson recently unveiled the government’s plans to fight back against obesity, including banning junk food adverts before 9pm, ending ‘buy one, get one free’ deals on unhealthy foods and display calories more prominently on menus. With 63 per cent of adults in England classed as overweight or living with obesity, the public health crisis is both costly and puts strain on the NHS at a time when it is focused on tackling the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Demos’ survey found that people are largely in favour of more interventions from the government with 59 per cent of people surveyed backing a requirement for all grocery shops to stock health foods.

Calls for cigarette packaging style warnings were supported by 45 per cent while 43 per cent of people wanted to see a ban on unhealthy food adverts on public transport.

As for Demos’ recommendations, they want the government to take aim at processed foods. Former Health Secretary Lord Lansley welcomes the push for “reformulations which consumers will tolerate, and shifting the balance of affordability away from energy-dense, processed foods”.

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Rose Lasko-Skinner, researcher at Demos and author of the Turning the Tables report, also wants to see leaders launch a new fund for the development of lab-grown meat or meat alternatives as well as subsidising healthy foods that are already low in price, making tinned tomatoes, carrots and frozen vegetables cheaper.

Lasko-Skinner said: “Boris Johnson’s strategy to crackdown on obesity is a welcome step in the right direction. But it doesn’t go far enough in tackling root causes of obesity – many of which lie in our food sector, rather than with retailers. Our research shows there is an opportunity for the government to be even bolder, and pioneers for a new era of food innovation.

“By stimulating groundbreaking innovation in the food sector, the government could make food healthier, more affordable and provide better choices for consumers, whilst supporting the workforce in the recovery from Covid-19. With the political will to make it happen, it has the potential to transform the health of people in Britain from all walks of life.”

Marcus Rashford’s work to ensure the poorest families had school meal vouchers over the summer put food poverty briefly at the top of the news agenda while campaigners have urged those who can afford it to pass on their Eat Out To Help Out discount to help the battle to end hunger. But the Demos report shows that more work is to be done to ensure eating healthily as choice for the country’s most vulnerable too.

A government spokesperson said: “We recently launched a world-leading obesity strategy to make the healthy choice the easy choice for families and help reduce obesity rates. It builds on existing progress, including the voluntary sugar reduction programme and wider reformulation programme with industry which resulted in a 2.9 per cents reduction in average sugar across retail products in its first two years.

“Our Healthy Start scheme already supports pregnant women and young children from lower income families to access free fruit, vegetables, milk and vitamins to support a healthy lifestyle.”