The De-Evolution Of the UK Diet

Colorful picture of a plate of roasted chicken, roasted potatoes, cauliflower cheese, green peas and a chunk of pork sausage.
Sunday Dinner: Meat, sausage, roast potatoes, peas and cauliflower cheese; CharmaineZoe’s Marvelous Melange from England, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

A WholeNew World of Choice

In the late 1960s and early 1970s a whole new world of choice was opening up. Food rationing had come to an end in 1954, just at the point that rising immigration meant that different ways of eating were emerging in Britain.

By 1971, foreign travel and holidays were becoming affordable, expanding ideas of food and drink. And wives and mothers (who did most of the shopping and cooking) were starting to think about moving away from the standard “meat and two veg”.  

In some ways the UK diet has changed a lot over the last 50 years, in others, not so much.  

1971 – a Different World

In 1971, around 70% of households owned a fridge, some of which had tiny “icebox” freezers at the top, but only 3% had a separate freezer. This meant that for many households, keeping much in the way of frozen food at home was not always an option. In 1971, UK shoppers spent £165 million on frozen food. In 2020 that spend topped £7.2 billion.

TV cookery programmes were gaining popularity: Delia Smith published her first cookbook, How to Cheat at Cooking in 1971, and restaurant chains like Berni Inn served affordable “real” food that was not all that different from what was being eaten in the home.

This kind of going out to dinner was targeted at Mr and Mrs Average, with two kids and a Ford Cortina. It wasn’t fancy, but it meant that mum didn’t need to cook it or clear up.

Some of the Differences are not that Big

These days, there is a lot of concern that intake of fruit and vegetables in the UK is less than three portions a day. But back in 1971, average intake of fruit and vegetables per day was only just over three portions. It seems that eating lots of fruit and vegetables has never been high on the consumer agenda in the UK.

In 1971, average fish consumption was around 144 grams a week. By 2019 it had fallen very slightly to around 140 grams a week. Actually, the real change in fish consumption is the type of fish people are eating. In 1971 around half of the fish being consumed was oily, often in the form of herring, kippers and bloaters, and sardines.

These days we eat more white fish and what little oily fish we eat tends to be farmed salmon.

Our Daily Bread

Bread consumption has changed too. Back in 1971 almost nobody ate wholemeal; 99% of the bread being eaten was white, and these days that has fallen to 76%. 50 years ago, we ate around 154 grams of bread a day, but today we only eat around 90 grams a day. That looks like quite a difference, but 154 grams of bread is about four slices, and 90 grams of bread is two to three slices.  

Our fat intake hasn’t changed all that much either. The average intake of fat from things like butter, margarine, lard, suet and vegetable oils was 56 grams a day in 1971. UK government data shows that intakes now are around 59g a day, although the types of fats and oils that we consume these days are very different.

Three women in a kitchen. One is washing dishes and wearing  a turquoise tabard. Another appears to be drying the dishes, and the third is standing with her thumb to her lip.
Women in the kitchen; Texas State Archives from Austin, Texas, USA No known copyright restrictions

But Some of the Differences are Huge

So, some of the changes to what we eat really aren’t all that huge. But there are two things that have really changed. Our sugar intake has increased considerably, and this is probably linked to the other major change, the arrival of ultra-processed foods.

Sugar and Ultra-Processed Foods up

Back in 1971 the average sugar intake per day was around 34 grams. Now it is around 119 grams a day, and a lot of that is “hidden” because it is sugar which has been added to other foods.

And back in 1971, ultra-processed foods didn’t exist. There were “convenience foods” which were generally canned, frozen or dehydrated meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and soups. Breakfast cereals, instant coffee, tea bags and even pre-made cakes and biscuits were also considered to be “convenience foods”.

But the kind of foods that are so prevalent today, the shinily packaged, high fat, high salt, high sugar, quick fix, instant gratification but ultimately unsatisfying junk had not yet been invented.

The Rise of the Supermarket

Mother and child in a “Presto” grocery store, 1970s. GlenrothesFife; Debbie Mc: Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

Before supermarkets first appeared in Britain, a consumer had to go to a range of different shops for different goods. Shoppers stood at a counter and shop assistants went and got whatever items the shopper wanted to buy.

But the arrival of supermarkets meant that shoppers could walk through the shop at their own pace, looking at the wealth of different products that were available. They could pick them up, read the labels, and be beguiled by eye catching, colourful packaging.

By the end of the 1960s, there were over 3,000 supermarkets in Britain and the number was growing fast, because shoppers were realising that they could save time and energy by buying everything they needed in one place.  

The Rise of Processed Food

In 1971, 53% of women were working, around half of them part-time. But as more women entered the workplace, the desire for labour saving and convenience grew. The food and advertising industries were quick to recognise the potential of selling new types of relatively “instant” foods to working wives and mothers.

New techniques, like spray drying, freeze drying, new equipment like evaporation plates, and new food additives like preservatives, meant that the food industry could deliver an increasing range of ready to eat, or ready to heat, meals.

Advertising

The industry knew that products and brands needed to do something to stand out from the crowd to drive consumer purchases. They changed their packaging and designs, and they invested in research and development to create new products, like Vesta curry, and Birds Eye frozen TV dinners.

Advertising is specifically intended to persuade people to buy products. Of 60 TV advertisements from the early 1970s, around 80% are for highly processed foods. Of 92 TV advertisements from 2010 to 2017 that goes up to around 95%. Almost no advertising from either period is for fresh food, although there are a few ads for butter and eggs.

The UK Diet Today

Right now, the average diet in the UK is a bit of a disaster. Fruit and vegetable intake is falling while intakes of ultra-processed food are going up. More than 55% of all calories consumed in Britain today come from ultra-processed food.

Back in 1974 our consumption of ready meals and convenience foods was around 50 grams a week. Now it is around 250 grams. And the more ultra-processed food someone eats, the greater the risk of obesity, diabetes, cancer and death.

Can we Turn Back Time?

Somehow, we need to change what we eat. But it’s difficult. The food industry has billions invested in making sure we carry on eating ultra-processed food. They would be really happy if we ate more of it, and so the advertising spend is huge.

The retailers have billions invested in much the same thing; they make more profit from processed food than they do from fresh food. And because processed food has a nice long shelf life and is relatively easy to transport, there is a lot more processed food around than there is fresh food.

Changing the way we eat is one of the most difficult things we can ever do, because our relationship with food is an incredibly complicated thing. But being aware of the need for change is an important first step.