Today saw the publication of the National Food Strategy, which calls on the government to reform the UK’s food system to address the immense burden of diet-related illness whilst protecting the environment.
Poor diet currently contributes to 64,000 deaths every year in England alone, costs the economy an estimated £74 billion, and is damaging the environment, biodiversity and the climate.
Two years in preparation, this landmark report, authored by food entrepreneur Henry Dimbleby, calls for an urgent rethink of how we produce our food to protect the health of the nation, and of the environment in which that food is grown.
Overall its recommendations aim to help the UK escape the Junk Food Cycle to protect the NHS, reduce diet-related inequality, make the best use of the land and create a long-term shift in our food culture.
Quadram Institute’s scientists have broadly welcomed the National Food Strategy and look forward to contributing to its recommendations through our collective mission of delivering healthier lives through innovation in gut health, microbiology and food.
Challenging current food culture
“The National Food Strategy is a wake-up call and I hope that this will be a catalyst for major transformative changes that are desperately needed to protect the health of the population and our planet for generations to come” said Dr Cathrina Edwards, a nutritional scientist and Career Track Group Leader in the QI’s Food Innovation and Health Programme.
“Creating a long-term shift in food culture will not be an easy task, but with the right support, science and innovation can come together with food producers to create the next generation of healthier and more sustainable foods that fit into modern lifestyles.
“There are many opportunities to make big changes in the caloric value and metabolic effects of everyday foods, particularly at the level of food processing and formulation.
“Through a joined-up food systems approach, major societal challenges can be tackled together. For example, the improved use of pulses in everyday foods would boost fibre and protein intakes, and provide a source of low-glycaemic carbohydrate, while also reducing reliance on less-sustainable wheat and animal-derived ingredients.
“The UK has a strong inter-disciplinary community of highly motivated researchers who are eager to collaborate and will no doubt rise to this challenge.”
Food innovation for health and sustainability
These sentiments were echoed by Professor Pete Wilde,
“I support Henry Dimbleby’s findings in the National Food Strategy and the need to incorporate top quality, sustainably produced food in improving the health of the UK population. QIB is investigating how developments in food innovation that reduce glycaemic responses and enhance micronutrient availability can lead to improved lifelong health by reducing the twin burdens of obesity and hidden hunger.”
Dr Fred Warren, also from the Food Innovation and Health programme, expressed his support
“Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy recommendations are solid and offer clear mechanisms for improving food production in order to improve health. Here at Quadram Institute, with partners at John Innes Centre, we are assessing how the carbohydrate quality of different crops, including pea and potato, varies across varieties, contributing to the goal of providing healthier food choices.”
Pulses are also crucial to more sustainable farming, due to their reduced need for nitrogen fertilisers. In the wider context, they are also a source of alternative proteins for transitions diets to including less meat. Quadram researchers are supporting this transition by helping ensure there are readily available, healthy and nutritious meat alternatives, including products like Quorn. We are also supporting research to ensure that micronutrient deficiencies that might be associated with vegetarian or vegan diets, such as iron or vitamin B12, aren’t barriers or hidden health costs to adopting reduced meat, sustainable diets.
Adopting a One Health approach
The strategy also highlights the “invisibility of nature” referring to the majority of plant, animal and microbial diversity that we don’t see. Quadram’s Microbes in the Food Chain programme is very much focused on understanding the role of microbial interactions and evolution to enable safer foods through the reduction of foodborne pathogens and antimicrobial resistance throughout the food chain.
This is being achieved through cutting-edge microbiological and genomic methods, encompassing a One Health approach which recognises the interconnectedness of human, animal and environmental health.
This One Health approach circles back to understanding how microbes interact with food and our bodies, centred on the gut microbiome, which our Gut Microbes and Health programme is investigating. We are undertaking a mechanistic understanding of food-gut microbiome interactions to understand how the microbiome modulates both the immune system and the gut-brain axis. If we eat food that keeps our gut bacteria happy, we improve our health more generally.
Another of the report’s recommendations is the creation of a National Food System Data programme to collect and share data so that the businesses and other organisations involved in the food system can track progress and plan ahead.
Sharing food and nutrition data
Paul Finglas and Dr Maria Traka from the Food Databanks National Capability (FDNC) see this as a positive step. FDNC oversees and curates the UK’s food composition data, which underpins nutritional monitoring of the UK’s diet as well as supporting current food labelling.
“The National Food Strategy suggests that improved food labelling is one of the mechanisms by which individuals can escape the junk food cycle. We agree and suggest that food labelling must be simplified and contain information that is of use and understandable by all consumers. At the same time better and up-to-date access of branded food nutrition data for smart technologies such as app-based diet tracking will allow us to monitor the nutritional changes in unhealthy foods and will empower individuals to make healthier choices.”
The National Food Strategy sets out in a series of clear, bold and evidence-based recommendations what the UK should do to reset its relationship with food to provide a healthier future for our children, grandchildren, and all future generations.
At the Quadram Institute, and with our partners on the Norwich Research Park, we are already addressing many of the points raised. As part of this unique cluster of world-leading research and clinical organisations working on food, health and the environment, our hope is that the research we are carrying out now will, through the adoption of these recommendations, lead to a healthier future for all.
The National Food Strategy is available to read at https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/.
For more about research at Quadram Institute, please visit our website.