29/11/2012 10:30 GMT | Updated 28/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Austerity Britain and Nutritional Poverty

This week the Guardian published an article claiming that austerity Britain is "experiencing nutritional recession". Data compiled on behalf of the newspaper, analysing thousands of UK citizens' grocery buying habits, showed "the consumption of fat, sugar and saturates" had soared since 2010. This was particularly true for households with incomes below £25,000. This rise in fatty food consumption was then linked to the sub heading that 900,000 fewer people were managing their 5-a-day fruit and vegetable portions.

I have not seen the original data but I have no reason to suspect they are incorrect. What I do have a problem with is the conclusion of the Guardian article that rising food prices "are condemning people on the lowest incomes to an unhealthy diet." I have 3 objections to this. Firstly, the price of fruit and vegetable have risen less than the price of processed fruit; secondly not all processed foods are "bad" for you and thirdly fruit and veg consumption is nutritionally over-rated.

(1) In the same Guardian article it is reported that the retail price of processed food has risen 36%, yet fruit prices have risen by only 34% and vegetable prices by 22%. It would, therefore, seem that the price of fruit and vegetables is comparatively cheaper now than previously. Could it be that the decline in fruit and veg consumption is amongst the more affluent classes? It might be convenient to assume that lower income householders are the ones not buying fruit and vegetables but were they buying it before the recent food inflation? I suspect not. Obesity levels have been higher in lower socio-economic groups long before the rise in food prices.

(2) There is a simplistic assumption that all processed food is "bad" for you and I do wish we could get away from this notion of "good and "bad" foods. Some processed foods are, in fact, highly nutritious. Baked beans are a classic example. They are high in fibre, virtually fat free - and each serving counts as one of your five a day if you are a 5-a-day follower. Heinz baked beans provide 79 kcals per 100g, 12.9g carbohydrate and 3.7g of fibre. To boot, they've got to be one of the quickest and easiest meals to prepare even for families who suffer from a "lack of food skills". Another condemned food, pizza, can form the basis of a nutritional meal. One slice of thin crust has approximately 140 kcals, some 3.2g of fat, 20.5g of carbohydrate and 7.7g of protein. Sure if you eat an entire deep pan pizza with extra toppings and don't exercise you are going to pile on the pounds but there are many highly nutritious ready meals/tray meals/meals in pouches available today which have the added benefit of providing portion control. I do agree that a lack of food education means some low income people are drawn to refined carbohydrates and nutritionally bankrupt foodstuffs but poor food choices are not the preserve of the poor. I have some highly educated people in my clinics who also love to snack on pies, cakes and fried coated chicken.

(3) Following on from the notion that processed food is "bad" it must follow that fresh food is "good". Indeed the article states that increasingly stretched budgets now have to be spent on "frozen and processed products at the expense of fresh fish, meat and fruit." The fairy-tale that fresh is better is almost as entrenched as the 5-a-day fruit and veg myth. It simply is not true! Fresh fruit can lose nutrients along the supply chain making frozen food nutritionally comparable or even superior. Fast and organised methods of harvest-to-freeze have evolved which minimise the loss of nutrients. By contrast "fresh" food can spend a month in the chain of producers, wholesalers and retailers before reaching the customer. For those poor people who do not have a fridge or freezer, tinned food is also an economical alternative to buying fresh produce. People are convinced that fruit and veg are a good source of vitamins and minerals and the message that actually they are nutritionally pretty useless is not popular.

I don't disagree with Professor Tim Benton of the Global Food Security programme who says that "children who go hungry and fill up on monotonous diets based on highly processed carbohydrates, little fresh vegetables and no fruit are likely to have poor nutritional status. Neither do I disagree with MP Laura Sandys when she says we have to "look at food as an important policy area and accept many families are not going to be able to feed themselves in the way they have done." What I do worry about is drawing the wrong conclusion from the data to shape future government policy. Not once in the article is there any mention of energy expenditure - only energy consumption and yet the health consequences from physical inactivity are every bit as alarming as the nation's unhealthy diet. It might just be that austerity Britain forces people to leave their cars at home and walk more which many experts think would have the most beneficial effect upon the nation's health.

Dr Ashton BSc, MD, PhD, one of the UK's leading weight loss experts. Weight to Go