You are what you eat: How our eating habits have changed since the 1970s (and what to expect by 2050)

 
Catherine Neilan
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Vol-au-vent, Tone? (Source: BBC)

If we are what we eat, the UK has changed from being a nation of canned mik puddings and canned peas to one of frozen pizzas and pasta.

A major new study of 150,000 households in the UK has found just how much our eating habits have changed since the 1970s - and it's fair to say that, as with our fashions, some things have gone out of the window.

Back in 1974, only 15 per cent of households owned a freezer, meaning there was a lot of reliance on tinned foods: peas, potatoes, fruits and good old milk pudding. Plenty of us also had our own chickens running around, it seems, but that was on its way out: a wartime government asking about owning poultry and access to free eggs before the question was dropped in 1991.

Fast-forward to the year 2000 (now, in itself, a relatively long time ago) and a world in which 94 per cent of us own a freezer has made a huge impact on what we eat: frozen cakes, peas and chips being the hottest orders of the day, while today sales of frozen pizza and pasta are at record highs. White bread has fallen out of favour, with consumption dropping by 75 per cent, while brown and wholemeal has risen by 85 per cent. We also drink four-times as much skimmed milk as we used to.

In 1989 households were asked for the first time whether they owned a microwave (or, as Jennifer Lawrence's character in American Hustle calls it, a "science oven"), and since then the number of ready meals we buy has more than doubled.

As convenience has been on the rise, the proportion of our expenditure on food has actually dropped.

A Glasgow household in 1974 would have spent £9.10 on weekly items including 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. That might sound disproportionate, but it represents 11 per cent of total income, compared with 24 per cent in 1974.

But what about the future? Well, we're still pretty far from food pills taking over as our main source of nutrition - in fact our future diets are expected to become more extreme versions of what we have today: super healthy, but expensive, or convenient, cheap - and low in nutrition.

According to the Future Food Report out today, we are in danger of slipping into a two-tier world, in which food becomes "a class issue".

"Participants expressed anxiety that food is becoming a ‘class issue’ – increasingly perceiving a divide between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ in terms of the kind of food they eat," the report said. "Participants expected that this trend would continue in the future, and even worried about a ‘two-tier’ food society.

"They were eager for intervention to help ensure that all consumers can make healthy choices and have access to whole, affordable, nutritious foods – even if they don’t always choose to have them."