What are the barriers to eating healthily in the UK?

This research examines the economic barriers to healthy eating in the UK. In particular, the report focuses on three barriers to healthy eating in the UK: food affordability, food prices and access to food stores selling healthy groceries at a good price.

The key findings of the study are that:

  • Food is a key component of household budgets in the UK. Across the country, food  accounts for about one in every ten pounds spent by households. For households in the bottom income decile (the poorest 10%), food accounts for about 15% of all expenditure and takes up about a fifth of household disposable income.
  • Just under a fifth (17%) of households surveyed as part of this research said groceries put a strain on their finances. For individuals with a household income of £10,000 or less, about two fifths (39%) said groceries were a strain on finances, as did about a quarter (23%) of those with a household income of between £10,000 and £20,000.
  • Some survey respondents stated that high and unaffordable food prices have led to a range of behavioural responses. Across all households, two fifths (38%) said that they had started shopping in a cheaper food store, while about a quarter (23%) said that they had purchased cheaper and less healthy food – a figure that rises to a third (34%) among those with a household income of £10,000 or less.  Across all households one in ten (10%) said that they had cut back on their own level of food consumption so that others in their family (such as children) can eat. This figure stands at 14% among households with an income of less than £10,000.
  • Households in London, the East and the South of England tend to pay more for food products (on a per unit basis) than those in the North of England. Prices paid in Scotland and Northern Ireland also tend to be higher than the average for England too. Regional variations in food prices are likely to be a reflection of store availability (such as access to premium and discounter brands) as well as household preferences such as willingness to pay more for organic and Fairtrade products.
  • Smaller convenience stores may charge a premium for some items compared with larger supermarkets. Research by the consumer group Which? in 2017, which compared the cost of a basket of goods in different stores in London, found that smaller convenience stores were more expensive – for example, Tesco Metro was found to be 7% more expensive than Tesco and Sainsbury’s Local was found to be 5% more expensive than Sainsbury’s[1].
  • The Opinium survey commissioned as part of this research shows a significant minority of individuals reporting that healthy and nutritious food in the UK is unaffordable. A quarter of individuals (25%) said that they felt that healthy and nutritious food was unaffordable in the UK. For those with incomes of up to £10,000 and £10,001-£20,000 this was higher, at 44% and 27% respectively.When asked about the types of food products they found most unaffordable, households most frequently cited fresh products, particularly fresh meat and fish – 44% and 35% of households said they found these unaffordable, respectively. Some 17% said they thought fresh fruit was most unaffordable, as did about one in ten (11%) for fresh vegetables. In contrast, just 5% of households thought snacks such as crisps and chocolate bars were most unaffordable, and just 4% thought soft drinks were.
  • Access to food may be a barrier for individuals living in “food deserts” – areas which are poorly served by food stores. In these areas, individuals without a car or with disabilities that hinder mobility may find it difficult to easily access a wide range of healthy, affordable food products. SMF analysis presented in this report suggests that about one in ten (8% of) deprived areas in England & Wales are “food deserts”. Such areas include the Marsh Farm estate in Luton, the Southampton Way estate in South London, the Trowbridge area of Cardiff and Swarcliffe in Leeds. In Scotland, estates such as Easterhouse in Glasgow were identified as food deserts.

We estimate that 10.2 million individuals in Great Britain live in food deserts, based on our definition. 1.2 million individuals in deprived areas are estimated to be in food deserts.

According to the Opinium survey commissioned as part of this research, one in eight (12%) of individuals stated that “not being near a supermarket offering healthy food at low prices” was a barrier to being able to eat more healthily. Some 7% said not having access to a car to travel to the supermarket was a barrier to eating healthily. Although less frequently cited than other barriers – for example, 29% cited mixed messaging about healthy eating – this suggests that access to food stores is a barrier to eating well in some parts of the UK for some residents.


Download The Report: PDF

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