Two recent articles paint rather different pictures of food and food prices.

Earlier this month, Jan Kees Vis, the global director for sustainable sourcing development at Unilever, told the CropWorld 2012 conference in London that food was too cheap and only encouraged waste. ‘Places that offer food for lunch – chilled, day-fresh [food] - have made incredible growth, but the result is a lot of food is wasted,’ he said. ‘A big factor in why we waste so much food is that food has become too cheap. If it weren’t, we wouldn’t waste so much of it.’

Today, a report on the Guardian website suggests that Britain is in ‘nutrition recession’. The article begins: ‘Austerity Britain is experiencing a nutritional recession, with rising food prices and shrinking incomes driving up consumption of fatty foods, reducing the amount of fruit and vegetables we buy, and condeming [sic] people on the lowest incomes to an increasingly unhealthy diet.’ A related article about a fairly typical couple in Bristol, Nicola and Tony. They have two sons but have just £40 per week to spend on food - despite the fact that they both work.

There is some truth, and a lot wrong, with both of these assertions. It is true that allowing consumers choice and near constant availability of food means that some food will be thrown away. If we have a choice over what to buy and we want to be able to buy it at all hours of the day and night, then there will be more waste than if had to make a purchases in advance and stick to them. But having such choice is, I would argue, is a very good thing. It is a ‘luxury’ that comes from living in a relatively affluent society.

The real question for the Bristol couple and others is why they only have £40 per week to spend on food out of a gross income of about £500 per week. Surely that speaks to a number of other problems, from high taxation (probably takes about a quarter of that income straightaway) to the high cost of housing. In fact, the proportion of average income spent on food in the UK is lower than for any other European country but Ireland, according to this infographic.

There’s another problem here, though. That is the idea that we should be eating ‘five a day’ in order to remain healthy. In fact, the evidence in support of that notion is pretty thin. Big studies, like the EPIC trial that reported in 2010, looking at the five-a-day mantra suggest that eating more fruit and veg by itself doesn’t have much affect on health outcomes. Yet struggling families like this one in Bristol are guilt-tripping over the fact that they can’t afford ‘healthy’ food.