Everyone’s talking about sugar at the moment.  We’re eating far too much of it, and its one of the key culprits behind our high levels of childhood obesity.  But when the government published its advice on sugar last summer it also published advice on fibre. In contrast to sugar, fibre has not been the subject of intense media discussion and campaigning, even though we typically eat much less than is recommended and evidence shows that dietary fibre helps reduce heart disease, cancer and obesity.

Fibre intakes in Britain are currently very low.  In 2013 only 16% of children managed to eat their 5-a-day.  This is hardly surprising when you consider what we’re eating. Our research shows that typical British families are heavily reliant (for up to 60% of their kilocalories) on highly processed foods, which typically have low levels of fibre.

After cereals, vegetables and potatoes are the largest contributors of fibre to our diets; contributing almost one third of our fibre intake.  Here we consider what might be making it harder for families to eat enough fibre from vegetables.

First up is price: research from the University of Cambridge has shown that fresh fruit and vegetables are a relatively expensive source of dietary energy, and so when budgets are squeezed, cheaper sources of calories will be prioritised.

Typical families do prioritise spending on vegetables. In fact, according to Kantar Worldpanel data, it is the food category they spend most on. But they are still not consuming enough and a lot gets thrown away at home. Moreover, given relative prices it is not surprising that fruit and vegetable purchasing is dramatically different between rich and poor people in Britain.

Second, fresh fruit and vegetables are not being thrust at us through marketing. In fact, Nielsen’s research shows that 60% of food advertising goes on confectionery and ready-prepared foods, while a meager 3% goes on fresh fruit and veg. Likewise, promotions have been shown to be skewed away from healthy foods like fruit and veg.

Third, while it has become much easier to eat out and there’s been a 50% increase in numbers of places to eat out, unfortunately these places are not, for the most part, selling us lots of fresh vegetables.

When we look at the supply chain its not looking good either. Our purchasing of vegetables has been declining since the 1960s. The proportion of vegetables eaten in the UK that are actually grown here is also declining – now standing at 58%.  The proportion of the value captured by the grower is also declining, even though there are considerable margins added to farm-gate prices.

Factors which are likely to be contributing to low producer prices and higher prices for consumers include:

  • The agricultural subsidies received by horticulture farmers is the lowest of all farming sectors – principally because these farms are typically smaller than others and many subsidies are allocated according to farm size.
  • The Groceries Code Adjudicator set up to help get a better deal for farmers in their contracts with supermarkets has in practice had limited powers to act.
  • Waste is a major contributor to cost of vegetables with significant proportions being lost through retailers grading standards and storage, but also a lot is being thrown away at home.

We need to be eating more vegetables to tackle diet-related disease. We also need to be shifting to eating more vegetables in order to reduce the carbon footprint of our diets. But we’re becoming more reliant on imports, which for highly perishable vegetables is likely to mean that our vegetable bill at the supermarket is likely to go up even further. This is a problem which is set to get worse, not better.

Finding ways to improve vegetable consumption in Britain should be a key element of the government’s forthcoming childhood obesity strategy.  We’d also like Parliament’s Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to do in-depth inquiry into the vegetable sector in Britain to establish the ways in which growers and consumers can get a better price for British vegetables.

If you want to join us in making it easier and more fun to eat veg then let us know you #LOVEourVEG and follow us @Food_Foundation or on Facebook (The Food Foundation) and we’ll keep you posted on what we’re doing and invite you to get involved.