FT: Cash-strapped Britons have cut down on the amount they spend on food and are making cheaper, less healthy choices, according to a report published on Monday, raising concerns about the quality of nutrition in the economic downturn.
The move towards cheaper food bucks a long-term trend, explains the report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, suggesting that the economic environment has led to “quite big changes in purchasing behaviour”, says Martin O’Connell, senior research economist at the IFS and one of the authors of the report: Food Expenditure and Nutritional Quality over the Great Recession.
The UK’s economy has been stagnant since the start of the 2008 global economic crisis. Prices have risen faster than wages and unemployment has increased, squeezing households’ disposable incomes.
But the period has also witnessed sharp food price inflation – from 2007 to 2012 the price of food rose by 10.2 per cent more than the cost of all goods.
The tendency to buy more processed and less nutritious food, was most marked among families, single parents and pensioners, the report found.
Kate Smith, research economist at the IFS, said: “Over the recession, households have responded to higher food prices and the squeezes on their incomes by switching to cheaper calories.
“This has coincided with a fall in the nutritional quality of foods purchased, with moves away from fresh fruit and vegetables and towards processed foods. As a result, the average saturated fat and sugar content of food purchases has increased over this period.”
A separate IFS report, Gluttony in England? Long-term Change in Diet, also published on Monday, found that the average person in England is fatter than in 1980, yet is buying less food, suggesting that people are not taking enough exercise.
The average man’s weight has gone up by 8.6 kilos since 1980 and that of a woman by 7.9 kilos. Yet in 2009, households were buying 15 per cent fewer calories than in 1980.
In the UK, more than 25 per cent of adults are obese and 70 per cent are overweight.
“The literature, mainly from the US, has focused on increased calorie consumption as the reason for increased body weight. In England, we see a substantial decrease in total calories purchased,” the report said.
Mr O’Connell said: “There has been a move towards more sedentary lifestyles and occupations. Whether that’s enough to explain the apparent puzzle is still an open question and something we continue to look at.”
Spending on eating out, snacks, sweets and soft drinks increased during the period – but not by enough to explain the substantial increase in weight.
Both reports were funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the European Research Council.