Soil Association and Professor Tim Spector lead calls for reduction in ultra-processed foods

The Soil Association wants to see healthier food in schools

The Soil Association wants to see healthier food in schools

The Soil Assoication has added its voice to a leading expert in calling for schools and hospitals to serve more “real food” and less ultra-processed foods.

Speaking at the House of Lords Select Committee inquiry into Diet, Health and Obesity this week, renowned professor and author Tim Spector recommended that ultra-processed foods (UPFs) should make up no more than 10 per cent of the food served in government-funded institutions.

That would represent a dramatic shift as UPFs make up 61 per cent of energy intake from school meals for primary school children, due to a range of factors, including tighter budgets and a lack of facilities.

After being asked which strategies he would propose to tackle obesity, Spector said government should “make sure that all government, taxpayer-funded institutions, like schools, hospitals, and other institutions, have a policy of having less than 10 per cent ultra-processed food in their diets”.

He added: “I think it’s particularly important for our schoolchildren that they actually do get some real food.”

‘Reductive debate’

The Soil Association is supporting a bold UPF-reduction target for public institutions and has urged government to roll this out alongside a “whole school approach” that reconnects children with real food and cooking, growing, farm visits, and sensory food education.

Spector’s recommendation followed a warning given earlier in the inquiry by Soil Association head of food policy Rob Percival, who said that these foods were disrupting children’s relationship with food.

Percival warned that the debate on healthy diets had become reductive to talk about nutrients instead of food, and that this had been “spun” by the food industry to support a “harmful policy paradigm” that leads to an industrialised food supply which is not beneficial to our health.

“The good work of nutrition scientists, who have revealed the complexity of food and the necessity of a healthy dietary pattern, is being twisted into a policy paradigm where if we just think that if we throw in some fibre over there and squeeze out a few calories over here we might be healthy,” he said.

”And it’s not working. Our children are growing up from a very young age on an ultra-processed diet. They are growing up on a diet that’s universally soft and sweet, in which certain physiological responses are encouraged and certain behaviour patterns are entrenched, like snacking. Their whole relationship with food is being disrupted and this is all by factors that lie beyond the nutrient composition of these foods. We need to look beyond the nutrients if we’re to understand what’s going on.”

Hijacked tastebuds

Percival also warned about the influence the food industry was having on food policy, highlighting how most of the members of the government’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) had connections to manufacturing companies like Coca-Cola, Nestle, Cargill and PepsiCo.

The advice follows a warning sent to the Prime Minister in December that children’s tastebuds were being “hijacked” by ultra-processed foods, via an open letter co-ordinated by the Soil Association and signed by chefs, restaurateurs, doctors, and campaigners.

The campaign called for the government to act on its commitment to a whole school approach to good food, which was detailed in the 2022 ‘Levelling Up’ White Paper. But ministers have yet to put this into action.

Speaking after the inquiry, Percival added: “We’ve been waiting two years for the government to fulfil their promise. All schools should be required to adopt a whole school approach, alongside Spector’s recommendation for a reduction target for ultra-processed foods. This could really help children to appreciate real food, setting long-term habits that could shift diets onto a less ultra-processed footing.”