Food and diet

Recession may lead to unhealthy diet

"Struggling households are turning to cheaper, fattier food in the wake of the recession, while the quality of produce is plummeting," is the worrying claim in the Metro newspaper.

The claims are based on the results of a report that looked at how food purchases by UK households changed over the period from 2005 to 2012.

According to the report, economic circumstances have led to a "perfect storm" in terms of adversely affecting eating habits. It says real wages have fallen and unemployment has increased since the beginning of the recession, which was caused by the banking crisis of 2008. At the same time, there has been a substantial increase in the price of food.

The researchers found that households have cut the amount they spend on food by reducing the amount of calories bought and spending less per calorie. At the same time, the nutritional quality of the food purchased also fell.

The researchers say this means people may be eating less, but what they are eating tends to be of a poorer quality compared with their previous diet.

Households with young children, single-parent households and pensioners were the hardest hit, cutting the amount spent or the nutritional quality of foods bought the most.

Who produced the report?

The report was produced by the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS). It was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and the European Research Council.

The IFS is an independent research institute with an interest in economic and social policy.

What evidence did the researchers look at?

The IFS looked at how food purchases by UK households changed over the period from 2005 to 2012 by following the same 15,850 households over time. It did not include food purchased and eaten outside of the home.

They wanted to see if there was a significant change in purchases in the years after 2008 compared with the years before the onset of the recession.

What were the main findings?

The report found that, comparing the years before the recession (2005-7) with 2010-12, real food spending fell by 8.5% on average.

Real food spending is an estimate based on the amount of money spent on food divided by the price of a basket of consumer goods and services purchased by households (including food and beverages). This gives an idea of the proportion of household expenditure spent on food.

Households were found to have bought 3.6% fewer calories and switched to cheaper calories, spending 5.2% less per calorie. Calories bought were in more calorie-dense foods.

The nutritional quality of food purchased also declined between the periods 2005-7 and 2010-12. Nutritional quality was assessed using:

  • the nutrient profiling model – where energy density, saturated fat, sodium and sugar content contribute negatively, and protein, fibre, and fruit and vegetable content contribute positively
  • the healthy eating index – this is calculated on the basis of how calories are distributed across food types and nutrients

The researchers found there was a switch to less healthy food types, mainly from fresh fruit and vegetables towards processed foods.

However, there was a shift towards healthier food products within some food types – for example, the average saturated fat content of processed food fell.

There were also differences across households. Households with young children cut back on calories purchased more than other household types, and pensioners reduced calories purchased more than non-pensioner households without children.

Pensioners, households with young children and single-parent households had a larger decline in the nutritional quality of the foods they purchased.

What did the researchers conclude?

Kate Smith, a research economist at the IFS and one of the authors of this report, 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."

How accurate is the media reporting?

The media reporting of this study was accurate. Many news sources also covered the results of another piece of research published by the IFS on the same day: "Gluttony in England? Long-term change in diet", which described changes in households' calorie purchases since 1980.

It found that during this period there has been a reduction in the number of calories bought, but the average weight of men and women has increased.

Eating well on a budget

When times are hard and money is tight, you are probably not inclined to include organic smoked salmon on your shopping list. But it is still possible to eat a healthy diet on a budget. Useful tips include:

  • avoiding shopping on impulse – make a list at home and stick to it
  • buying fruit and veg that is in season – produce grown in the UK is usually cheaper than imported goods
  • checking the shelf-life – supermarkets often reduce the price of goods near their sell-by date
  • looking out for durable bargains, such as two-for-one offers on foods that keep, such as pasta, rice, cereals (choose wholegrain options as they contain more fibre) and tins of pulses or tomatoes
  • avoiding pricey ready meals and making your own, especially if you are cooking for a group of people – it is usually a much cheaper option

Read more about eating well on a budget.

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