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AI Predicts Healthiness of Food Menus and Highlights ‘Double Burden’ of Unhealthy Food Environment in Deprived Areas

Scientists at the University of Cambridge have used artificial intelligence to predict the healthiness of cafe, takeaway and restaurant menus at outlets across Britain and used this information to map which of its local authorities have the most and least healthy food environments.

The findings, published in Health & Place, highlight the double burden faced by people living in the most deprived areas, where there tend to be more food outlets per capita – more than double the number in the least deprived areas – and these outlets tend to be less healthy.

Restaurants were found, on average, to have the healthiest menus, followed by: cafes, snack bars, and tea rooms; pubs, bars, and inns; and lastly fast food and takeaways.

The team used geographical data to map the food outlets, summarising the average menu healthiness of all out-of-home food outlets at the local authority level. Local authority districts with the highest menu healthiness scores included City of London, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster. The local authority districts with the lowest menu healthiness scores were Northeast Lincolnshire, Luton, and Kingston upon Hull.

The researchers found that, in general, the higher the level of deprivation in an area, the lower the average menu healthiness across its out-of-home food outlets – and all four categories of food outlets tended to be less healthy in more deprived areas.

Not only that, but out-of-home food outlets also tended to cluster in more deprived areas. In the most deprived areas, there were 8.39 food outlets per 1,000-3,000 people, compared to just 3.85 in the least deprived areas.

Huang said: “There’s a clear pattern between the healthiness of menus at out-of-home food outlets in an area and its level of deprivation. This can create a ‘double burden’ for people living in deprived neighbourhoods, where there are more outlets and these tend to be less healthy, compared to less deprived neighbourhoods.

“On top of this, there are studies that show, for example, that people with the lowest income were more likely to be obese when living in areas with a high proportion of fast-food outlets. This could even create a ‘triple burden’ for people living in these areas.”

The researchers acknowledge that the menu healthiness score does not capture the intricate nuances of the menu, such as portion size, cooking methods, and levels of food processing. This could be important, as interventions such as healthy catering awards introduced by local government focus on aspects like smaller portion sizes, reducing salt, and switching cooking oils.

This work was supported by the Medical Research Council and Gates Cambridge.


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