Home » Research Review 2020-21 » Research Review: Changing the food landscape

Changing the food landscape

The food landscape is constantly evolving – heavily affected by political and economic policy, shaped by changing consumer behaviours and influenced by shifts in public opinion on issues like sustainability.  
It is undeniable that over the last year, the food and hospitality industry has been impacted by political and economic decisions relating to the pandemic.  Whilst it is difficult to predict the long-term impact of these changes, our researchers are utilising pre-pandemic spending data to identify which areas may be hardest hit and, therefore, in need of most support.  
Alongside our pandemic-related research, we have also progressed a number of longer-term projects which seek to understand food-related behaviours.  We have been collaborating with our partners in industry and with policy makers to help drive change within the food landscape.   
This year has seen our relationship with Sainsbury’s continue to develop with a formal partnership announcement in January 2021, a published paper in April 2021, and their involvement as a Challenge Owner in the Turing-LIDA Data Study Group, involving several CDRC researchers.  It is a key partnership for facilitating change in the food landscape. 
In May 2021, we also announced a new partnership with the Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD), trialling different strategies encouraging people to adopt healthier and more sustainable diets.  These interventions include signposting better choices, the positioning of products in shops and online, and the use of influencers and recipe suggestions. While this is a long-term project, the results of the first pilot trial will be published by the end of the year. 
Our engagement with policy makers has continued at pace in the last year – Rachel Oldroyd recently concluded a project with the Food Standards Agency; Dr Michelle Morris was invited to share her expertise as a member of the Food and Drink Sector Council Nutrition Working Group; and Vicki Jenneson completed a secondment within the National Food Strategy team at DEFRA to model potential food taxation strategies to improve public health and dietary sustainability (resulting in the recent publication of the National Food Strategy report).  

Highlighting implementation challenges of plans to restrict point-of-sale promotions 

New plans to restrict point-of-sale promotions of less healthy foods and drinks in England aim to encourage healthier choices. With responsibility for implementation of restrictions likely to fall to food retailers, it is important to understand the challenges they face in order to ensure policy success. 

Researchers from the CDRC applied the rules in the proposal to a database containing 45,000 food and drink products, to understand how feasible the policy is to implement from a retailer perspective.  They found the data available to retailers were insufficient to apply the rules set out by the policy proposal, which would result in some products being incorrectly promoted. 

Project lead, Vicki Jenneson, discussed the policy and her findings with industry nutritionists from six UK retail and manufacturing businesses to understand how implementation challenges could be addressed.  

Based on our findings, we are currently engaging with policy makers to recommend a review of the legislative basis to establish rules which align public health benefit with data feasibility.  

The researchers are highlighting that government support is needed, in the form of a free-to-use tool for consistent automated product assessment, and development of a data-sharing platform, accessible to industry and the legislator.  

This work went on to inform a CDRC-funded LIDA Data Scientist Intern who created an interactive tool – the Nutrient Profile Model Calculator – for policy makers. 

Helping encourage healthier and more sustainable diets  

The Institute of Grocery Distribution (IGD) have recently convened a Healthy and Sustainable Diets project group to collaboratively identify and test strategies that could encourage people to make healthier and more sustainable food and drink choices. Members of the project group have already begun to trial some of those strategies in real-life settings, in a set of research interventions being rigorously designed and implemented by the CDRC and the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics (LIDA).  
To analyse the results, the research team are capturing and measuring sales data from each intervention, enabling the project group to see exactly what is going on in people’s shopping baskets and assess what levers truly drive long-term behaviour change. 
The retailers involved in the voluntary trials are collectively testing five ‘behavioural levers’, as identified through IGD’s Appetite for Change research series:  
• Signposting 
• Placement  
• Product  
• Influence  
• Incentivisation  

Improving understanding of changing diets  

In collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Wellcome Trust-funded Livestock Environment and People project, the CDRC are using supermarket transaction data to investigate trends in meat consumption between 2016 and 2019. Vegetarian and vegan diets are increasing in popularity in the UK, but little is known about how people’s overall dietary patterns change when they reduce their meat consumption.  We are using machine learning techniques to identify households that reduce their meat consumption and examine the dietary patterns associated with that transition. 

CDRC researchers, Dr Nik Lomax and William James, are building on work funded by the PigSustain project to produce high spatial resolution estimates of consumption in England and Wales. They have already developed expenditure estimates across a range of food and drink categories at local authority level.  Their latest work focuses on how much is actually consumed, enabling them to compare diets to food availability, and identify areas where deficiencies in nutrient intake are most prevalent.   

Helping local authorities to prioritise food outlet inspections 

An estimated 2.4 million cases of foodborne illness occur each year in the UK and 60% of these are thought to be contracted whilst eating outside the home.  In recent years, the number of food outlets has increased by nearly 30%, such that 43% of the population now purchase food from a restaurant or take-away at least once a week.  
Despite these changes, local authority expenditure on food hygiene and food control has reduced. Many local authorities struggle to undertake the required number of food outlet inspections, leaving unsafe food practices and unsafe environments unchecked, increasing the risk to the consumer. 
CDRC researcher, Rachel Oldroyd, has developed a model which can identify non-compliant food outlets in 85% of cases, providing an effective way for local authorities to inform prioritisation of food outlet inspections. 

Uncovering new rural e-food deserts 

A new small area ‘e-food deserts index’ (EFDI) produced by the CDRC revealed that food deserts are not solely an urban phenomenon associated with neighbourhood deprivation. Analysis by Dr Andy Newing revealed the presence of rural ‘e-food deserts’ –neighbourhoods that suffer a dual disadvantage of poor access to grocery stores alongside comparatively poor provision of grocery home delivery services. 

The index highlights the barriers in providing services within some of our most remote and rural areas, where population density does not warrant comprehensive food store provision and where retailers also face considerable costs in providing grocery home delivery services to dispersed populations. This indicator will, hopefully, help to focus attention on these inequalities.  

The index can be explored via interactive maps available for all LSOAs in England & Wales and Data Zones in Scotland. The data and a more detailed user guide can be downloaded via the CDRC website

The Trust for London, an independent charitable foundation aiming to tackle poverty and inequality in London, has used the e-food deserts index as part of its London Poverty Profile series, which also highlights CDRC research conducted by UCL. Since the launch of the EFDI on the Trust’s website, the page has been viewed over 572 times, with metrics that suggest good engagement. When first announced in the Trust’s January newsletter, it was the third best performing piece of content, placing the index as one of the highest-performing maps within the London Poverty Profile content. The index has also been cited by a number of local news outlets across England, further demonstrating the index’s importance to local populations and improving local lives.