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The key to healthy eating? Focus on food, not nutrients

The key to healthy eating? Focus on food, not nutrients

Yesterday, the Soil Association provided oral evidence to the ‘Food, Diet and Obesity Committee’ in the House of Lords.

The Committee is investigating the drivers of the UK’s epidemic of dietary ill-health, with a focus on ultra-processed foods and foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS).

The opening question asked was this: What is a healthy diet?

At the Soil Association, we believe a healthy diet is one based around a diverse balance of nourishing foods – and the emphasis in this statement is on ‘foods’. When asked this question, many scientists and public health advocates may fail to mention foods at all – they might talk instead about fats and fibre, calories and carbs. They might talk about nutrients instead of nourishment.

This isn’t unreasonable. Nutrition science tells us that to be healthy, we need to consume the right combination of macronutrients and micronutrients: proteins, fats and carbohydrates, plus dietary fibre and water, and an assortment of vitamins and minerals. Framing dietary health in these terms is scientifically accurate, and can be helpful in the right context, but it can also be problematic. A focus on nutrients over foods may even be part of the reason the UK population is so unhealthy.

We eat foods, not nutrients.

Whole foods – fruits, vegetables, beans, pulses, grains, meat, and dairy – are wonderfully complex, and more than the sum of their nutrient parts. You can look at an apple and describe it as carbs, calories, sugars, fibre, vitamin C and magnesium, but there is a lot more going on. These nutrient components are bound together in a ‘matrix’, a biochemical package, and that package is important.

Take a clove of garlic. A single clove contains more than 2000 distinct chemical components, and in that treasure trove of chemical complexity are components that confer garlic’s taste, texture, and aroma. These sensory characteristics in turn shape our physiological response when eating – our body’s satiety signalling, the response of appetite hormones and the gut microbiome, the speed at which we chew and swallow. How we eat is shaped by the non-nutritive components of foods.

We know all this because of the brilliant work of nutrition scientists. But their work has been twisted in recent decades and co-opted by the ultra-processed food industry. Instead of celebrating food as the basis of a healthy diet, the industry has sought to keep attention narrowly focussed on ‘nutrients of concern’ – those that can readily be engineered into, or out of, ultra-processed products. Instead of promoting nourishment, policymakers have fallen into the industry’s trap, and have championed calorie-reduced, low-fat, low-sugar industrially manufactured products instead. And it isn’t working.

A reductive focus on nutrients is making us sick.

This is why the inclusion of ultra-processing in the Committee’s inquiry, and not only HFSS foods, is so important. If ultra-processed diets are making us sick, then the true answer lies not in reformulating products to squeeze out a few more calories, but in shifting diets back towards nourishing foods, in all their brilliant complexity.

The Soil Association was the first NGO in the UK to have a dedicated policy, advocacy and campaigns workstream on ultra-processing. For the past five years, we have been raising the alarm, warning that our diets have become dangerously unbalanced. And today we put that view to the Lords, calling for food to be placed at the centre of the Government’s obesity plan.

This is a surprisingly contentious suggestion, for the food industry senses the threat. There’s less money to be made in fresh produce, so they are fiercely contesting a policy response framed around ultra-processing. But such a response is now desperately needed.

What is the role of Ofsted in addressing ultra-processed foods in schools?

Ofsted should ensure schools are helping to address the excessive consumption of ultra-processed foods. All schools should be required to adopt a ‘whole school approach’ which includes freshly prepared meals and sensory food education, learning from the Food for Life programme. Our 'Learning to Eat' report shows how such an approach leads to children eating around one third more fruits and vegetables and are twice as likely to eat five fruits and vegetables a day. If all primary schools in England were Food for Life schools, one million more children would eat five or more portions of fruit and vegetables per day. 

In their 2022 ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper, the UK Government said they would require schools to adopt such an approach in England, saying: “The UK Government will promote accountability and transparency of school food arrangements by encouraging schools to complete a statement on their school websites, which sets out their ‘whole school approach’ to food. The UK Government’s intention is that this will become mandatory when schools can do this effectively.”

We’ve been waiting two years for the government to fulfil their promise. All schools should be required to adopt a whole school approach, and Ofsted should take account of this in their assessment. This could really help children to appreciate real food, shifting diets onto a less ultra-processed footing.

If we are to be healthy, then the task before us is this: to rekindle an appreciation for the complexity and wonder of food, especially among children, and create the conditions for everyone to access and enjoy a more minimally processed diet. Such an ambition lies at the heart of the Soil Association’s strategy.