Food Standards Agency research has exploded the myth that people on low incomes are restricted to less healthy, poorer quality food

So now we have it. A piece of definitive research by the Food Standards Agency that torpedoes a raft of nonsense about the eating habits of people on low incomes.

The main planks of this raft are:low-income consumers have a worse diet than the rest of us and it's the fault of supermarkets. Second, they eat high-fat, sugary foods because these are all they can afford, so supermarkets should make the healthier options cheaper - fat, however, is more profitable. And third, many low-income consumers are stuck in 'food deserts' because supermarkets have abandoned these areas.

Anyone who has stood at checkouts and filled customers' shopping bags in the run-up to Christmas will challenge any theory of choice based exclusively on income. In a typical supermarket it's difficult to deduce an individual's income from the food they choose to buy - the only partial exception being organic products that retain their social class AB status. In most trolleys, premium and economy sub-brands sit next to each other in the same way as 'healthy' and 'unhealthy' products.

The FSA's research confirms this anecdotal evidence. It found no direct link between diet and income, access to food and cooking skills. The diet problems of low-income consumers are generally the same as those facing the population as a whole - not eating enough fresh vegetables and oily fish, while eating too much saturated fat and sugar.

Nor are levels of obesity significantly higher among low-income consumers. The majority of the FSA's sample shopped at supermarkets and most said they could cook from basic ingredients. The conclusion is that these consumers eat what they do by choice rather than necessity.

Where those on low incomes differ from the population as a whole is in their lifestyles. Smoking and alcohol consumption are higher than average and the amount of exercise is lower. So those of us who have argued for years that lifestyle matters more than the intricacies of food labelling and other cherished nostrums of the anti-supermarket brigade stand vindicated.

The problem now, of course, is the freedom to choose. Supermarkets have greatly enhanced the range of products available to all consumers, regardless of their income.

Full-time reformers of the national diet want to restrict this. Consumers are making too many bad choices. They need to be saved from themselves. The war goes on.n

Kevin Hawkins, director general of the British Retail Consortium