We are what we eat

Britons prefer Thai takeaway to fish and chips and want food produced locally, according to an unprecedented government report. By Jane Merrick

Sunday 23 November 2008 01:00

The typical Briton is giving up fish and chips in favour of Thai takeaways and choosing locally grown food over expensive organic produce, but still failing to eat five portions of fruit and vegetables a day, The Independent on Sunday reveals today.

Traditional eating habits have changed radically over the past 30 years, due to rising prices, greater health awareness and our busier lives. For the first time, the Government has produced a wide-ranging assessment of British eating, using food diaries, surveys and official industry statistics.

The popularity of organic and free-range food could be coming to an end, with figures showing fewer people are willing to pay a premium for such produce. Instead, consumers want food that is grown and produced locally. And while Britons throw away £10bn worth of food – a third in leftovers – some families have no choice at all. More than 200,000 people in the nation's poorest homes often go an entire day without food.

The report comes as ministers prepare a campaign urging us to "Buy British" as a way of helping the UK through recession. From tomorrow, local food producers will be encouraged to bid for more public sector contracts, while Food minister Jane Kennedy will pledge that the Government will do all it can to promote British food within European free market laws. Ministers are also considering ending the 74-year-old state funding of school milk in favour of marketing campaigns to encourage children to drink more of it.

Below are the highlights of the first annual food statistics pocketbook:

On average we eat 3.8 portions of fruit and vegetables a day – short of the five recommended by the NHS and the World Health Organisation.

This marks an increase since 2002, when the average intake was 3.2 portions, but the slow rate of improvement will disappoint campaigners for healthy eating.

Women eat more fruit and vegetables than men – 32 per cent consume five a day compared with 28 per cent of men. Intake is highest among women aged 55 to 64, who eat on average 4.5 portions a day, and lowest among men aged 16 to 24, who consume 3.0 portions a day.

Last week the European Union announced that, from September 2009, it would introduce free fruit and vegetables in primary schools to boost nutrition among children and combat obesity among 22 million European children.

It would cost €€90m (£76m), paid through the Common Agricultural Policy. Free fruit and vegetable schemes already exist in schools in England, Scotland and Wales, targeted at youngsters aged four to six, although this is not enjoyed by all schools.

There is also little evidence that the children who need it most, those on low incomes, are eating the fruit and vegetables provided by schools. Ministers are now desperate to limit the scale of obesity in the UK.

Latest predictions suggest more than half the population will be obese by 2050. The prevalence has doubled in the last 25 years, with 24 per cent of people aged 16 or over and 16 per cent of children classed as obese.

Obesity is most common among the lowest social classes, particularly in women, and in Scotland and the North-east of England, according to the document.

The Government estimates that £19.9bn every year would be saved if our diet met national nutritional guidelines, including the five a day policy. But the costs of treating the overweight are estimated to be £7.7bn a year.

Thai food is becoming the biggest growth area in the £30.5bn a year eating-out food sector, which includes food-serving pubs, restaurants and takeaways. (This category excludes alcoholic drinks.)

Britons spend £7.6bn, a quarter of the eating-out total, on fast food, including fish and chips, pizza, burgers and Thai, Chinese and Indian takeaway.

The average person spends £11.54 a week on food and drink outside the home, of which £8 goes on food and soft drinks and the rest on alcohol.

But the figures reveal that the traditional British fish and chip supper accounts for only 3 per cent of food cooked outside the home.

Sales of Thai takeaways have jumped 36 per cent in the past five years, and with Indian and Chinese takeaways accounts for 6 per cent of the eating out market.

Money spent on eating out has risen 27 per cent since 2002, although ministers predict this will start to decline as the full impact of the recession is felt.

The growing popularity of gastro-pub food means this is the second -largest area in the sector, with 23 per cent of sales, while restaurant meals account for 15 per cent.

As a nation we are buying, and consuming, a third less milk and dairy produce than 30 years ago. In 1976 the average person bought the equivalent of six pints of milk or six pounds of cheese and other dairy produce a week. In contrast, today he or she buys the equivalent of 3.8 pints of milk or pounds of cheese. The cost of milk has doubled since 2000, yet the price at the farm gate has increased by just 22 per cent, showing how supermarkets' profit margins have soared.

At the end of 2007, milk cost 56p a litre, compared with 43p in 1996.

Farmers have begun to sidestep the retail food chain by supplying farmers' markets, the restaurant wholesale market or by exporting. Last year, turnover from direct sales to farmers' markets was £220m and to farm shops £1.8bn.

The IoS has learnt that ministers are considering scrapping subsidised milk in schools in what would bring to an end the 74-year-old state funding of school milk.

Defra is reviewing the subsidisation of milk, currently given to 1.3 million pupils in two-thirds of primary schools in England. This is because of new EU rules saying European money must also be made available to secondary school children.

The Government spends £1.5m on a "national top-up" of EU subsidy in primary schools, and is not planning to increase that budget. Parents who pay for school milk contribute around 11.4 pence for a third of a pint.

As a result of the EU rule change, ministers are considering either dividing the British money between primary schools and secondary schools, meaning parents of primary school children would have to pay more, scrapping the national top-up altogether, or using the money in a more "cost effective way" on marketing campaigns for all children on the importance of milk.

Ministers were urged to scrap the national subsidy two years ago after an official report ruled it was not cost effective, but at the time the Government declined. A Defra official last night said "all options are on the table".

By contrast, the devolved administration in Scotland introduced free school milk two years ago. School milk was first subsidised by the state in 1934. In the 1970s the then Education Secretary Margaret Thatcher scrapped free school milk, earning her the nickname "milk snatcher".

A third of people in the lowest 15 per cent of household incomes, say they cannot afford to eat a balanced meal. A fifth of poor families reduce or skip meals, while 5 per cent – more than 200,000 – sometimes go for an entire day without eating.

The poorest fifth of households are eating less fruit and veg than the average, around 3.5, which has barely risen since 2002. Among those on low incomes, only 8 per cent of men and 9 per cent of women meet the Government recommendation of five fruit and vegetables a day.

Among those in the poorest homes, 98 per cent say the reason they don't always have enough food is a lack of money. Lack of storage space is a problem for 16 per cent of poor households, while lack of transport to reach the shops cause 14 per cent to go hungry.

Awareness of the environmental cost of food has led to increased enthusiasm for local produce. The looming recession means people are less likely to pay a premium for organic and free-range food. By contrast, people are beginning to pay more for food grown on farms in their own county.

Two years ago, 24 per cent said they would shell out for organic produce, but this has now fallen to 21 per cent. For free-range meat and eggs, the figure has fallen from 26 to 24 per cent.

In the same two-year period, the proportion of people willing to pay a premium for local food has risen from 14 per cent to 21 per cent, while those paying for fair-trade food has increased from 15 per cent to 18 per cent.

In 2005, 51 per cent of people were happy to pay a premium for quality ingredients, but this has dropped to 43 per cent. The proportion of people who are happy to pay more for produce from specific country, such as green beans from Kenya, has fallen by a third.

Air food miles have trebled since 1992, although the figures show it accounts for 1 per cent of overall food transport. Urban food miles within the UK have increased by 30 per cent in the past 15 years, while carbon dioxide emissions have increased by 20 per cent. However, families are becoming more dependent on using their cars for shopping, with an 8.8 per cent increase year on year in "food shopping miles".

Britain is developing a national habit of leftovers, with a third of all food waste left on the plate. UK households annually waste around 6.7 million tons of food – around one third of all food purchased. Defra says 61 per cent of this is avoidable. The annual cost to UK households is £10bn. Salad items, typically in bags, are the most common food going to waste, accounting for 60 per cent of the total cost and 45 per cent of the weight. Last year, 32.3 per cent of avoidable food waste was leftovers, 22 per cent was out of date, 9 per cent "looked bad", while 9.4 per cent was mouldy. Almost three-quarters of breakfast cereal is thrown away.

But research by the Food Standards Agency shows that a third of consumers do not understand the difference between "best before" dates – after when the product can still be eaten – and the stricter "use by" dates.

The organic family: 'We eat as healthily as possible'

Helen Fraser, 33, thinks eating healthily is so important for her family that she grows her own organic vegetables. She lives in Henley with her husband, Richard, and her children, Angus, three, and one-year-old Beatrice.

"I enjoy cooking, and the evening meal is always home-cooked. I do try to make sure we all eat as healthily as possible. I probably get around six portions of fruit and vegetables a day, and I'd say my husband and kids get close to that.

"I grow my own organic food on an allotment. This year I've grown everything from French beans and courgettes to rocket and purple-sprouting broccoli. Every year I'll try to grow something new. We have a bread maker, and make our own half-white, half-wholemeal bread.

"We get takeaways only very occasionally; maybe once every couple of months we'll have fish and chips or an Indian. I wouldn't ever buy a full ready meal, although very occasionally I'll buy pre-filled pasta like ravioli.

"I try to plan my meals for the week to make sure that we're not eating the same thing every night, which means the children are more likely to eat it, and we're not getting a lot of one thing, like potatoes. I think the Government's campaign on five a day worked well; everyone knows that's what they need to do now."

The freezer family: 'I don't have time to cook properly'

Tina Mcintosh, 42, says it is difficult to find the time or money to produce healthy meals for her family. She lives with her two boys, Brandon, 10, and Tyler, 12, in Bromley, south-east London.

"A lot of the time I don't have time to cook properly and I have to work to live. We'll have pizza quite often, or something else frozen you can just shove in the oven, like chicken kievs or southern fried chicken. If we do have vegetables it's usually frozen because the fresh stuff goes off too quickly.

"I'm a single parent and so I often just don't have the money. I work and that just about covers my bills; healthy food is expensive. I don't have a car, and the nearest supermarket is three miles away, so I go only once a month because I have to get a cab or buses back. There used to be a greengrocer on the corner, but now the shop nearest to me only sells tinned stuff, and other than that it's takeaways. There's nowhere nearby to get cheap, fresh vegetables, so I bulk-buy frozen food for the month.

"I think the Government could make it easier to eat healthily; they say a lot but never follow through."

Emily Dugan

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments