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£5.4m Trial to Boost Evidence Base for Healthier Diets

A £5.4 million research project to improve the evidence base underpinning healthier and more sustainable diets has begun work in England under leadership from a consortium of academics with input from major players in the food industry .

The food System triALs for Impact on Environment, Nutrition and healTh ( SALIENT), which launched on 1 June, aims to investigate ways to reduce the availability of unhealthy foods and promote more plant-based products across food retailing, catering, and in the wider community.

Funding for the 2-year project forms part of the Government response to the National Food Strategy and aims to help inform best practice and evidence-based policy.

The consortium is led by Peter Scarborough, professor of population Health in the University of Oxford's Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, and Martin White, professor of population health research at the University of Cambridge. 

Diet, Obesity, and Disease 

The project stems from recognition that poor diet is the second leading cause of death and ill health in the UK, after smoking. In England, 28% of adults are obese, and 38% are overweight, contributing to a range of illnesses and deaths from diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and some cancers. 

Research by the University of Cambridge found that efforts to tackle obesity across three decades had failed because they were flawed from the outset, poorly evaluated, and relied on trying to persuade individuals to change their behaviour rather than tackling unhealthy environments.

Modelling Interventions 'At Scale'

The team behind SALIENT said it would model the impact of delivering interventions "at scale" on health, inequalities, businesses, and the environment in trials lasting until March 2025.

The consortium would work with food producers and retailers to design and evaluate interventions but stressed it did not receive funding from the food industry. 

Professor White said the team aimed to improve on the "limited existing research evidence" and generate knowledge to "inform future policies to transform the food system towards greater environmental sustainability and better health outcomes for all".

Other academic input for SALIENT comes from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and the universities of Birmingham, Hertfordshire, Liverpool, Warwick, and Queen Mary's. The programme also includes participation by several Government departments, including the Department of Health and Social Care, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and the Food Standards Agency.

The National Food Strategy report, published in 2021, offered a comprehensive review of the food system in England, making a series of recommendations that included a sugar and salt levy on manufacturers, investment in sustainable farming practices, and promotion of plant-based diets. The report's author, cookery writer and restaurateur, Henry Dimbleby, said last year that the Government's climate and biodiversity targets relied on persuading people to eat less meat, but acknowledged that such a policy could be politically toxic.