LONDON (Reuters) – Britons hurt by lower incomes and rising food prices after the financial crisis have cut back on fruit and vegetables and turned instead to fatty, sugary, processed food, an academic study showed on Monday.
Britain has seen food prices rise much more sharply than most other developed economies between 2005 and 2012, while wage growth has been low and unemployment has risen.
The net effect has been that Britons are spending 8.5 percent less in real terms on food purchased at home than before the recession – with the trend even greater for pensioners and families with young children.
The research is likely to be politically sensitive at a time when Britain’s Conservative-led government is under pressure from the Labour Party, over declining standards of living and sharply rising demand at food banks which hand out free food to the poorest Britons.
People have economised by buying less food, measured in number of calories, but also on its quality, picking products that are less nutritious and higher in saturated fat and sugar.
“Various measures of nutritional quality declined over this period, with bigger decreases for pensioner households and households with young children,” said the Institute for Fiscal Studies, an economics research body.
Families with children were prone to switching to more sugary food, while pensioners favoured food high in saturated fat, the study showed. Both groups often have lower incomes.
While the economy is starting to show signs of growth after suffering the biggest hit to economic growth since records began during the 2008-09 recession, households’ disposable incomes are no higher than a decade ago.
However, the IFS said a lower-quality diet was not an inevitable consequence of having less money, and that some households had been able to eat as healthily as before while spending less. More research was needed to see why this was not the case for other households, the researchers added.
The study looked at data on more than 15,000 households’ shopping habits collected by market research company Kantar Worldpanel between 2005 and 2012.
The figures do not include meals purchased or provided away from home, for example in restaurants or at schools, which in England provide free lunches for poorer pupils.
The study was released alongside a piece of longer-term research from the IFS, which showed the English now consume 15-30 percent fewer calories than in 1980, despite higher obesity rates probably due to less physical activity.
This contrasts with the United States, where calorie consumption has risen as well as obesity. The IFS said it was were researching further into trends in Britons’ physical activity over the period.
* For the full studies, go to http://www.ifs.org.uk/
(Reporting by David Milliken; editing by Ralph Boulton)