Thousands of British consumers across the country are being left with little or no access to fresh fruit and vegetables because of an increase in so-called 'food deserts', according to research.

A study by Harper Adams University College found that many people in smaller towns such as Shrewsbury and Winchester, as well as rural towns and villages, were living beyond what is accepted as a reasonable distance from a store selling fresh produce.

Food deserts had previously been considered to apply predominantly to poor rural areas, but the survey also found major urban areas such Birmingham,Leeds and north London were affected.

"There are several different types of food desert, the main ones being small villages with no stores, urban peripheral housing estates, and affluent areas where the majority of residents would be expected to own a car," said Dr Hillary Shaw, senior lecturer at Harper Adams.

The consequences of this growing problem would be felt through health problems such as obesity, diabetes, anaemia, cancer and coronary illness, placing a further burden on strained NHS resources, he said.

A food desert is an area where people face physical and economic barriers to accessing healthy food, with anyone living more than 750m from a shop stocking fruit and veg, and those with limited mobility or no access to a car particularly vulnerable.

A combination of market dominance by the multiples, leading to the demise of small neighbourhood retailers, and a reluctance by local stores to stock fruit and veg, was blamed for the increasing lack of fresh produce on the shelves in food deserts.