UK | Chapter 4: Providing Nutritionally Valuable Food

photo by Divily

After more than 15 years living and working in Eastern Europe, the former USSR and the Middle East. Stuart Meikle returned westwards. A sabbatical followed to re-orientate himself back to North West European agriculture, food and policy issues. After the Brexit referendum, the possibilities of a UK-only policy was too interesting to pass on. A period of convalescence then allowed him the time to bring his ideas together and to write them up, thus this UK agri-food policy paper. It is an attempt to address the many relevant but complex issues at the same time. The paper was written before his soils-first policy paper published in ARC2020 (pdf) and it is best considered within the context of evolutionary thinking that is seeking to find definitive policy solutions.

Here we present number 4 of 12 policy objectives for the UK by Stuart Meikle.

Providing Nutritionally Valuable Food in an Evolving World (Key Objective 4)

Farming policy should be driven by the food and nutritional requirements of the nation. Post-Brexit policy will, however, be developed at a time when there is rising controversy over what constitutes a healthy, well-balanced diet. The nutritional debate encompasses, for example, what is the best balance of carbohydrates, proteins and fats to consume, the type of fats to eat, and sugar and salt consumption. There is argument about plant-only diets and the eating of foods derived from animals, and there is a discussion about what constitutes a sustainable, environmentally friendly diet. The debate is made more complex by the linkages between nutritional, ethical and environmental issues. Probably the one common position is that everyone should be eating far more fruit and vegetables.

Simultaneously there is a rising desire to source food locally and for transparency and disclosure about the production and processing methods employed. It as an environment that offers opportunities for British farmers via a reconnection of food producers and consumers. A message to eat less processed foods and to buy and prepare ingredients of known quality can only encourage these developments.

Writing a farming and food policy requires a vision of how consumer demand will evolve. It is dynamic. In the past, there were nutritional guidelines and accepted wisdom. Nowadays those are questioned and ‘diets’ proliferate. The food sector is highly innovative but that innovation tends towards creating new food products from ingredients. It is an activity to which the farmer is often a passive supplier, albeit one who is audited and farm-assured. That will change as farmers and consumers reconnect.

It is difficult to provide an uncontentious vision for nutrition at present, let alone to indicate what is a sustainable diet. The following paragraphs do, nevertheless, offer a few less contentious conclusions.

To eat more vegetables and whole fruit appears to be an agreed foundation of a good diet, as is to eat wholegrains rather than refined grains. Within this, one could add ‘and ancient grains’. It may not be appropriate to mention ancient grains in the context of food and farming policy but their widespread adoption by consumers will drive demand for an inherently lower-yielding cereal. Likewise, with oats.

Eat less sugar is now accepted wisdom. As equally important but less well highlighted is encouraging people to develop a lower-in-sweetness approach to food. It is a rarely mentioned concept in terms of tackling obesity and Type 2 diabetes – health issues that can also be addressed by raising awareness of lower glycaemic index foods and improving access to food products with a lower glycaemic load.

People’s perceptions about fats are changing. The simplistic idea that eating fat makes you fat is dated, and this will lead to a re-balancing of the dietary fats-to-carbohydrate ratio. It will be in the context of a rising awareness about eating good fats and avoiding bad carbohydrates. One can expect that will extend the current ‘rehabilitation’ of good saturated fats. This will include specifics relating to what vegetable and animal fats to consume and targeted better ratios of Omega 3s to Omega 6s. The days of the low-in-fat but sweetened-for-flavour processed products may also now be limited.

Nutrition will increasingly interface with many other subjects, and food products will have to go beyond providing food as fuel. A food product’s characteristics will also tell consumers how well the producer understands and reacts to many issues, be they for instance, environmental or animal-welfare related. As with all other food-related issues, food qualities including nutritional value [and taste and flavour] will be about enhanced communications between the consumer and the farmer and vice versa.


D1.1 Government to fund research into the full economic costs of malnutrition in the UK

The starting point for a food policy that accounts for malnutrition is to estimate the full economic cost of poor [mal]nutrition in the UK. This must quantify the economic cost of working hours lost directly and through providing care, and the cost of funding patient treatment by the National Health Service. A subjective assessment may also be made of the lost ‘quality of life’ being triggered by malnutrition.

D1.2 Government to fund research into the full future costs of nutrition-related illnesses

The potential gains from successfully addressing malnutrition must also be quantified. If solutions are to be found within the food system it is important to be able to quantify the likely future costs of, a) the status quo and, b) a worsening situation. These can then be balanced against the cost of solutions.


D2.1 Government to improve food label information about specific nutritional illnesses

Food labelling has had to change as allergies and intolerances have increased. Nuts, dairy and gluten are typically mentioned. Saturated fats have been highlighted for many years and sugar is now under scrutiny. Nutritional guidelines are under the spotlight as widely accepted recommendations are being questioned as obesity and its associated diseases have continued to rise. Food labelling will have to be adapted again as the links between malnutrition, obesity and illnesses are more clearly understood.

D2.2 Government to require all retailed food products to specify type of carbohydrates

While fats have been differentiated between saturated and unsaturated fats for many years, it is time that food labels differentiated the carbohydrate group by, say, their degree of refinement [linked to glycaemic index]. In this context, high-starch vegetables like potatoes would also be seen as high carbohydrate.

D2.3 Government to help the food service sector to specify exact carbohydrate contents

As diabetes proliferates, it is becoming more important that those with the condition have access to clear information about carbohydrate contents of foods prepared by the food service sector. This is especially important for the insulin dependent group. The Government must fund the creation of user-friendly software/apps to enable the food service sector to estimate the carbohydrate content of their recipes. It must ensure that supporting, robust, carbohydrate-content data for ingredients is available.

D2.4 Government to identify how to provide glycaemic-index information to consumers

Managing blood glucose levels is vital for the prevention and control of diabetes. The glycaemic index (GI) of foods is a valuable support to blood glucose management. The Government must identify ways to increase GI awareness amongst the population and to ensure that the GI is included on food labels.

D2.5 Government to support the food service sector to specify calories in prepared food

Improving the awareness of the calories in prepared foods can help to reduce obesity. It is valuable information for the general populace, but it should be presented in conjunction with the carbohydrate information mentioned above in D2.3. Similar solutions to those suggested above should be sought.


D3.1 Government to work with the food industry to provide affordable foods-for-illnesses

Food variants created for the needs of specific health problems are frequently more expensive than their conventional equivalents. In theory, this would change as demand increases. The Government must ensure that it does. It must also work with the entire food industry to provide foods tailored to meet precise health needs. This may include changing the specifications of what is produced on farms.

D3.2 Government to work with the farming industry to produce high-quality health foods

There may be farm yield implications when consumers demand products that they consider healthier. In this category can be listed oats (gluten free or otherwise) and ancient grains like spelt. These cereals yield less and provide less calorific energy per hectare than, say, wheat. When the benefits are widely recognised, the Government should consider offering support to growers to partially offset the lower yields. This would not be dissimilar from the rational for supporting organic farmers. The quinoa case where foreign demand has impacted upon indigenous communities can provide further justification.


D4.1 Government to help farmers and food producers to adapt to major dietary changes

What is a balanced diet in terms of energy provision is a point of debate. What constitutes a balanced diet has now itself become controversial. It is, however, important to note that any significant dietary shift has implications for food producers. For example, with rising rates of obesity and diabetes, high-carbohydrate diets are being questioned. If alternative low-carbohydrate, higher-fat diets are widely adopted it will have an impact upon food demand. The Government must keep a watching brief, and if it alters its guidelines it needs to consider giving support to any affected sectors of the food industry.

D4.2 Government to focus farming and food policy on quality rather than a specified diet

Given the contrary views on a balanced diet that exists beyond the official guidelines, food and farming policy must focus upon the quality of fats, proteins and carbohydrates available to British consumers. It is the case that the nutritional value and health benefits of foods go beyond the just carbohydrates, proteins and fats, and this needs to be focused upon. The consumed weights of each of the main groups can then alter with dietary trends and guidelines whilst the quality of the available foods does not.


D5.1 Government to support educational campaigns to consider lower-in-sweetness food

Has the population become increasingly fond of sugar itself, or is it about sweetness? Foods are now promoted as sugar-free or low-in-sugar with the sugar replaced by another sweetener; natural or otherwise. Sugar, or sweetness to be exact, has in recent decades replaced fats as a provider of flavour as fats have been vilified. It is now sugar’s turn. Hence, the rise in low-in-sugar products. An alternative that should be promoted is to encourage people to adopt a low-in-sweetness approach to food choice.

D5.2 Government to encourage food producers to offer lower-in-sweetness food options

As a way to help consumers to adopt a lower-in-sweetness approach to food choice, the Government should seek ways to encourage food producers to include lower-in-sweetness products in their ranges.

D5.3 Government to help with promoting naturally-sweetened, ‘low-in-sweetness’ foods

As people adopt a lower-in-sweetness approach to food choice, the sweetener options increase. For example, cakes can include the sweeter vegetables. Lower sweetness will also allow the use of less of the more expensive natural sweeteners like honey to achieve the desired result. Some flours can also be considered sweeter than others. Dried fruits are a realistic choice to deliver the sweetness required if less overall sweetness is sought. Simply, the options increase as the sweetness intensity is reduced.

D5.4 Government to investigate the home production of a diversity of natural sweeteners

There will be health benefits for those who reduce their sugar consumption. Although this may impact upon the UK sugar industry, it may also offer opportunities for British farmers and growers to produce natural sweetener alternatives in the United Kingdom. It is likely that the opportunities will be greater if consumers can adopt a lower-in-sweetness approach. The issue warrants government investigation.


D6.1 Government to support educational campaigns to promote lower-GI sweetener use

Lower-GI sweeteners will become a recognised part of blood glucose management for most adults. They will have a role in Type 2 diabetes management, and they will have a role in the prevention of the illness itself. Where a specific low-GI sweetener offers a higher sweetness-to-carbohydrate ratio, it may also help in lowering the overall insulin requirements of diabetics who are insulin  dependent.

D6.2 Government to determine which low-GI sweeteners can be feasibly grown in Britain

Low-GI sweeteners can be from natural or food-science sources. The Government must fund research into what low-GI sweeteners can be successfully commercially grown by British farmers and growers.

D6.3 Government to support the development of low-GI sweeteners production in Britain

The Government should support British farmers and growers to develop low-GI sweetener production in Britain should suitable crops be identified for the local climate. Xylitol could be one possible option.


D7.1 Government to consider a formal system for clearly labelling food high in Omega-3s  

While the ideal ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fat acids in the human diet has not yet been determined, it is widely accepted that most modern diets are too high in Omega-6 fats and that the ratio needs to re-balanced by increasing consumption of Omega-3 fats. Fish like mackerel are high in Omega-3 and found in British waters. Flax seed is a rich source of Omega-3 that has long been grown in Britain.

D7.2 Government to fund research into higher Omega-3 content products from UK farms

Government must fund research that links farming system and food quality. An Omega-3 example is that beef fat from cattle predominantly fed on grass [herbage to be exact] contains valuable amounts of Omega-3 fatty acids in a ratio of less than 2:1 Omega-6 to Omega-3. It is a reason why there is a school of thought that says products from animal raised on diverse pastures and herbage-rich forages are healthier to consume than those from grain-fed animals. Much of Britain is suited to pasture-based farming and the Government should investigate whether there needs to be greater focus on pasture-reared livestock even if that means less land is available for cereal production (see also section A2).

D7.3 Government to support farmers to access markets with higher in Omega-3 produce

When there is a body of evidence that links British produced foods and positive health outcomes, the Government must support producers to access the market. This is especially the case when products are farm-produced as opposed to food-industry created; not least because farmers themselves are usually more distant from the consumer. Skills and investment capital may also be limited. The use of designated-origin schemes and labels is the way for farmers to reach consumers with their message.


D8.1 Government to fund work to differentiate between better and worse saturated fats

‘All fats are bad’, ‘all saturated fats are bad’, ‘animal fats are bad and vegetable oils are good’, ‘some vegetable oils are better than others’… the messages about fats have become very consistent. Apparently, some saturated fats are now being ‘rehabilitated’. What is often forgotten is that these nutritional messages are interpreted by the food and farming industry and translate into significant production changes; some of which also have major environmental consequences like the expansion of palm oil. With respect to saturated fats at least, the British Government needs to fund research into their merits and to identify which good saturated fats can be produced on British farms and how it should be done.

D8.2 Government to develop a system to indicate the different qualities of saturated fats

Within the development of a new food and farming policy, the Government must revisit the issue of saturated fats. It has become too easy to state that all saturated fats are bad. If they are not eaten, alternative sources of energy have to be consumed. There are now question marks over how healthy the alternative energy sources are and the impact they have on long-term health. From a farming perspective, assessing the qualities of the saturated fats is important as farmers need to be aware of potential demand changes and, if necessary, policy makers must target support to encourage change.

D8.3 Government to help farmers to supply consumers with better saturated fat produce

There is growing awareness that eating saturated fats sourced from pasture-fed farm animals is better that eating that derived from grain-fed animals. It is also better for the environment in that ruminants are also utilising energy sources that are not consumable by humans. Food and farming policy and farm-management decisions have to be made upon a better understanding of the qualities of animal-based products and those must be defined by nutritional, environmental and production parameters.

D8.4 Government to provide consumer information to improve comprehension of the fats

Fats have developed a poor reputation amongst many consumers even though government guidelines recommend that up to 35% of energy needs should be derived from fats. Over the years advice has led to animal fats being replaced by those from plants. Trans-fats were an unfortunate part of this transition. There are now, apparently, some questions about how healthy some vegetable fats are. The unforeseen consequences of these consumption changes have been the overseas ecological costs associated with soybean monocultures and oil palm expansion. Consumers need to recognise that some animal fats are acceptable to consume, and the Government needs to help with this recognition.


D9.1 Government to support the development of high-quality protein foods from plants

High-quality proteins are vital to those who elect to follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Although they might not become mainstream diets, the ideals behind them influence consumers. There is also much said about the environmental impact of many animal production systems and the message to ‘eat less meat’ is a common one with respect to climate change mitigation. With sources of certain crops like the almond being threatened by water shortages in overseas growing regions, it is imperative that the Government supports the development of an array of plant-based protein sources within Britain itself.

D9.2 Government to promote higher animal welfare sources of animal-derived proteins

For some consumer-taxpayers, animal farming is not acceptable and they have chosen diets that are an expression of their views. For others, compassion in farming is as important. Hence, there is a clear link between these views and how protein foods are sources. There is also another clear link between environmental impact and protein sources. It is imperative that all these issues are evaluated as there is no simple protein-source solution. Whereas pigs and poultry may produce less GHG/kilo of protein, it may come at higher animal welfare costs and antibiotic usage. There are also differentials between forage-fed and cereal-fed cattle systems. The Government should highlight the options to consumers.

D9.3 Government to promote ‘quality-over-quantity’ and ‘to-eat-less-but-better’ proteins

As a protein-choosing message, the Government should be encouraging consumers to buy less but to focus upon better quality. Quality in this case refers to the proteins themselves, their animal-welfare implications and their environmental footprint. Concurrently, the Government must promote a more difficult message; that consumers must accept paying a higher price for higher-specification proteins.


D10.1 Government to monitor reduced-meat diets and the need for plant-based proteins

There is a rise in the numbers electing to follow a plant-based diet. Food and farming policy needs to recognise these consumer choices and ensure that their needs are provided for sustainably. Further, ‘eat less animal products’ and ‘eat less meat’ in particular are increasingly popular messages that have consequences for farming and food. ‘Eat better meat and dairy’ is another message that will require farmers to react. Together, along with environmental concerns, they will see animal-protein sources from intensive systems replaced with extensive ones and animal proteins replaced by plant proteins.

D10.2 Government to evaluate the sustainability of existing plant-based protein sources

It is assumed that plant-based protein sources are more sustainable that animal-based ones. There are, however, questions over, for example, soybean monocultures and the availability of water for almond growing. Soil degradation and rebuilding and maintaining soil fertility must also be considered. Hence, there has to be concern over the production of both animal proteins and plant proteins, and it is not just about growing more plants; albeit growing less for animal feed will help. The Government needs to ensure that everyone fully comprehends that a sustainable diet has to be come from farming systems that maintain their natural-productive capacity despite them being exploited for human food. A likely win-win farming system is agro-forestry where nut growing is integrated with animal grazing.

D10.3 Government to support the development of domestic plant-based protein sources

The proportion of the population opting to reduce their consumption of animal-derived proteins are doing so for a variety of reasons. These include dietary choice and concerns for the environment and animal welfare. Simply, they are issues aware. Hence, they will also be the ones who want to consume foods produced locally. The Government needs to ensure that British sources of plant-based proteins are being developed. It must consider positive action. It must also ensure that plant protein growing is integrated into British farming systems within the context of making their entirety more resilient.


D11.1 Government to support initiatives to increase the availability of locally grown fruit

Health messages are regularly mentioning the need for people to consume more fruit. Simultaneously, consumers are being asked to consider the environmental footprint of the food they consume and, especially, air-freighted fresh fruit. A common-sense solution must be to produce more fruit in Britain. This is far from straight forward as fruit production involves high capital investment, long periods of initial negative cash flows and, an even more serious problem with Brexit, the need for large numbers of harvest-time employees. The Government needs to develop policy solutions that will address all of these issues if British consumers are to have access to affordable, high-quality, home-produced fruit.

D11.2 Government to support initiatives to diversify the offering of British-produced fruit

To support the ‘eat more fruit’ message, growers need to focus on flavour. This has almost certainly declined over recent decades as the emphasis has been on all year availability from storage and on-the-shelf presentation. The trend needs to be reversed. As mentioned above, there are major financial costs associated with fruit production, and the risk associated with the investment increases when growers consider alternative varieties to those bred for modern food retailing systems. It is likely that there is a demand for ‘heritage’ fruit with ‘old-fashioned’ flavour but there are challenges to bringing them to mainstream UK food markets. Government policies are needed to address these challenges.


D12.1 Government to support the growing of fruit and vegetables with a depth of flavour

Without exception, health recommendations say that people need to be encouraged to eat more fruit and vegetables. One way to achieve this must be to offer consumers fruits and vegetables with greater flavour. The mention of heritage varieties suggests that flavour has been lost in a quest for shelf life, storage life and appearance. Consumers must be given the opportunity to prioritise flavour over these characteristics, and the Government must support growers to make flavoursome produce available.

D12.2 Government to investigate the nutritional content of available fruit and vegetables

There are indications that the flavour and nutritional value of fruits and vegetable has declined over time. This should be verified and, if true, plans prepared to reverse the trend. Encouraging consumers to eat larger volumes of fruit and vegetable is diminished as a healthy-eating message if the nutritional values of the fruits and vegetables that they are purchasing and eating is less than what it could be.


D13.1 Government to generally leave the market to supply novel crops to the food market

The market for novel products like spelt wheat is growing and some of these can be supplied by British farmers. As stated in D3.2, when these are considered to offer significant health (or environmental benefits), the Government should consider giving support to encourage their production. Where the demand is due to consumer choice, the market should be left to determine prices and, hence, supply.

D13.2 Government to encourage production if international supply sources are vulnerable

An exception to the policy statement above is when consumer demand in the UK for a crop like quinoa is recognised to be having a significant impact upon communities who grow and sell their staple crop. In such situations, the Government is justified in offering research and production support to stimulate the growing of the crop in Britain. This, nonetheless, is unlikely to be a frequently occurring situation.


D14.1 Government to establish a task force to assess the environmental costs of all foods

The Government must establish an independent task force to develop and implement a methodology to verify the environmental costs of all foods be they of British or foreign origin. The costs should include all growing, processing, storage, packaging, shipping, distribution and retail costs. The process should also highlight any major environmental consequences linked with supply activities in a locality. It should also verify the environmental and sustainability claims made by foreign suppliers to the UK.

D14.2 Government to ensure that consumers are aware about the impact of their choices

The results generated by the task force should be freely available. The findings should be sufficiently robust to allow local producers to highlight the benefits of choosing locally produced foods. They will allow consumers to make informed choices when choosing out-of-season produce from overseas. They will also highlight products that are based on imported commodities from those producers with a genuine comparative advantage in terms of both production cost and their environmental footprint.


D15.1 Government to support quality-assurance schemes that promote positive messages

In a free-trade environment it is not realistic to adopt negative messaging about food imports. They will be challenged in one manner or another. It is, therefore, imperative that the focus is on supporting British food producers to present positive messages about their products. These will relate to issues that concern the British consumer; for example, hormone-free or GMO-free. Both farming and food systems must be adapted to guarantee the integrity of these messages and transparency is a necessity.

D15.2 Government to encourage holistic and positive messages about exported products

A similar approach is required to the messages used to promote British foods in international markets; not least when the message relates to any health claims about produce. The messages must be about the positive attributes of British and not the perceived inferiority of the products produced elsewhere.


Previous Chapters

UK | Chapter 3: Preserving and Enriching the Natural Environment

UK | Chapter 2 : Minimising Net GHG Emissions from Food Systems

UK | Chapter 1: Robust Food Production Systems

Book Serialisation | Creating a New British Farming Food and Rural Policy

About Stuart Meikle 29 Articles

Stuart Meikle is an agricultural management and policy specialist, an economist, a writer and an advisor. He was brought up with agriculture and studied at the University of London. He joined the faculty on graduating and spent several years teaching, researching and consulting. His last 25 years have seen him advising governments, the World Bank and the IFC, NGOs, universities and private businesses in places as far afield as SE and Central Asia, the Caucuses, the Levant, SE Europe and the UK. Over the years he has developed a particular focus on agricultural and food sector strategy at the national and regional levels and linking rural development initiatives with the consumer through the food supply chains. He first arrived in Romania to work on a Commission project in 1997 and he lived in Transylvania for more than a decade from 2002; a location to which he was appointed as the United Kingdom's first Honorary Consul. Nowadays he and his family live in the Republic of Ireland.