Brits ‘consuming less bread, milk and tea’, official figures show

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Britons’ consumption of bread, milk, tea and coffee all declined significantly during the last 40 years, according to new data from the UK government.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has published two sets of data, which, combined, show how consumers’ shopping habits have changed since 1974.

It shows that the average Brit now consumers 25g of tea a week, falling from 68g in 1974 – the equivalent of 15 fewer cups, with the average consumer now drinking around eight cups per week. Consumption of instant coffee has fallen at a similar pace, as speciality and flavoured teas continued to gain ground.

British shoppers are also buying less milk than they used to: overall consumption has fallen, with skimmed and semi-skimmed milk overtaking whole milk for the first time in the 1990s and today accounting for four times as many sales.

Consumers are eating less bread in general – around 15 slices per week, compared with 25 slices in 1974 – while there has been a notable shift from white bread to brown, wholemeal and other varieties. This trend underlines a wider move towards more healthier food and drink options: consumption of fruit has increased by 50% since 1974 and, in 2014, low-calorie soft drinks accounted for half of the overall market for the first time.

Despite this, the average person’s takeaway food consumption has increased from 80g per week to 150g – a jump of almost 100%. Fish and chips is increasingly losing its status as the country’s favourite dish, replaced by meat-based junk food such as kebabs, chicken, burgers and meat-based meals, which, between them, accounted for more than a third of takeaway food consumption. Chips accounted for a further 33g.

Further to this, the growth in popularity of pizza is characteristic of the emergence of Italian cuisine in the UK. British consumers, on average, ate the equivalent of just 2g of pizza every week in 1975 – but this had leapt up to 53g in 2014. The increase in takeaway pizza consumption during that time was around 1,000%.

And in general, a sharp rise in the popularity of frozen food and decline in consumption of canned and tinned foods has contributed to a sustained reduction in the price of food: shoppers spent almost one quarter of their weekly pay on food when the data was first recorded, but this figure currently stands at around 11%, as the cost of food has become gradually more affordable.

The insights have been taken from annual food surveys since 2000 and cover a sample size of around 150,000 households in total.

Liz Truss, the UK government’s environment secretary, said: “Food is the heart and soul of our society and this data not only shows what we were eating 40 years ago, but how a change in culture has led to a food revolution. Shoppers are more plugged in to where their food comes from than ever before, the internet has brought quality produce to our doorsteps at the click of a button, pop-up restaurants are showcasing the latest trends and exciting global cuisines are now as common as fish and chips.

“By opening up this data we can look beyond what, where or how previous generations were eating and pinpoint the moments that changed our habits for good. We’ve only scraped the surface of what the National Food Survey can tell us and from local food maps and school projects to predicting new food trends, I look forward to seeing how this data can be used to learn more about our past and grow our world-leading food and farming industry in the future.”

Defra provided four principal explanations as to why Britain’s food consumption behaviours are changing. A rise in the consumption of frozen food is indicative of rising household freezer ownership: in 1974, just 15% of households had a freezer, compared to around 94% at the turn of the century. This rise in technology also correlates with a drop in people sourcing their own food, or keeping their own poultry.

Convenience has always been a motivating factor in people’s purchasing habits, Defra said, and the types of food bought can say a lot about the biggest food trends of the time. Respondents to the survey in the 1970s were asked to record how much instant milk, instant potato and tinned peaches they were getting through – but this is more likely to be frozen pizza and pasta today.

In 1989, households were asked for the first time whether they owned a microwave, and since then the number of ready meals consumed has more than doubled.

‘Food decreasing as a proportion of pay’

The way consumers prioritise their pay has changed over the years, too. “A household in Glasgow in 1974 spent £9.10 one week on items such as corned meat, lambs liver and lard, whereas a comparable household in 2000 spent £80.90 on a shopping basket of mineral water, crisps and yoghurt,” Defra explained. While it may seem as though prices are increasing, they are actually decreasing as a proportion of shoppers’ pay.

Improved awareness and a desire to be healthier may also have played a role, the government department added.