Towards a healthier food consumption

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In February 2016 the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and the Environment Secretary Elisabeth Truss released findings from the National Food Survey, which had been running since 1940. Information about 150,000 households was included as part of DEFRA’s commitment to open data. In this survey, initially launched by the wartime government, thousands of UK households reported on their weekly food and drink purchases. The survey charted major shifts in the nation’s dietary habits over the last 70 years. Consumers are keener on knowing where their food comes from, online shopping has helped quick and easy access to quality food and the launch of the pop up restaurant concept is helping them to discover global cuisines and latest food trends (UK Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs, 2016).

The report highlights five main cultural changes that influenced the kinds of foods the UK population consumes today. These include:

a) Technology evolution, b) Convenience with ready meals, c) Shopping basket increased spending, d) A shift from the female consumer as mainly responsible for household food purchases and e) An increase in health consciousness.

It is worth noting, in this last regard, that the consumption of white bread has dropped by 75% since 1974 and was replaced by brown and wholemeal bread, the consumption of which increased by 85%.

At around the same time, Ipsos Mori reported back in May 2016 that there has been a significant increase in veganism of over 350% over the last decade in Britain (The Vegan Society, 2016), with at least 542,000 people currently following a vegan diet in the UK. Half of the vegetarians who are not vegan (521,000 people) said that they would like to change their diet by reducing the consumption of animal products. The trend is mostly driven by younger generations: 42% of all vegans are between ages 15 and 34, whereas those over 65 are only 14% (Marsh, 2016). This change is thus led by younger people eager to make more ‘ethical’ and ‘compassionate’ choices. Moreover, social media and in particular, image sharing app Instagram, play a crucial role in the dissemination of the trend and the build-up of a visually attractive lifestyle.

According to the CEO of The Vegan Society, people are influenced by the fact that nowadays there is a great variety of attractive vegan recipes, especially online and on social media, with consumers becoming more considerate about their health. Consumers are also influenced by many top vegan athletes who actively show that they can follow plant-based diets and still be competitive, fit and healthy (The Vegan Society, 2016). Accordingly, mentions of ‘vegan’ as a Google search term have increased by 150% between 2011 and 2016 (Joyce, 2016).

Predictions about global population increase (Food Standards Agency, 2016) have raised severe concerns about food supply, self-sufficiency and sustainability. Increasing demand globally as well as climate change implications have already affected food supply. It has been one of FSA’s main priorities that people understand the critical issues concerning the future of food. In February 2016 the agency presented research on ‘Our Food Future’, aimed at collecting evidence on UK consumers’ views about the food they consume and proposing future ways forward. By looking at people’s needs and core values about food consumption, the FSA attempted to prepare a roadmap for the UK public.

According to the research, the public has limited knowledge about the complex global food system. At the same time, it is eager to find out more about the role of the food industry in shaping trends and habits globally. When people were asked how they would face potential future issues like scarcity, they begun questioning their consumption habits. Some mentioned that they would like to revisit dominant food lifestyles by eating less meat or reassessing purchase of non-seasonal food. Among a wide list of concerns, access to nutritious and ‘healthy’ food was a crucial one. Consumers thought that anything associated with ‘fresh’, ‘whole’, ‘natural’ and ‘wellness’ food was important.

However, they recognised that people usually opt for cheaper food choices, and they worried about health issues related to processed food consumption. They also worried about the growing gap between those who have money for healthier food choices and those who do not. Last, although participants understood that food is an issue of global political, environmental and economic significance, the personal and social side of food was of greater concern for them.


Image source: Personal Collection

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