The first attempts by the Government to comprehensively measure our food consumption were driven by a need to determine the adequacy of the food supply and the effects of rationing during WWII.
At that time, it was seen as more important to increase the fat and energy content of the average diet.
Almost 60 years after the end of rationing, food has once again become a national obsession, although for rather different reasons. From a situation where choice was severely limited by availability in 1948, we are now faced in the supermarket with a dizzying array of food. For nearly a decade after the War, the Government permitted the production of just one type of cheese; today, Tesco stocks over 30 kinds of cheddar and 12 types of brie alone. This availability of comparatively cheap, tasty and easily-prepared food, together with a general decline in physical activity, has contributed to the UK’s ‘obesity epidemic’, even as the average daily number of calories we consume has fallen from 2,400 to 2,300 since 1948. Public policy is once again being directed towards limiting consumption of certain types of food.
A number of forces have driven changes in our food consumption habits since 1948. Most obviously, the breakdown of traditional meal patterns and the increase in female labour force participation, combined with generally elevated expectations of convenience, mean that many of us now would prefer to have our food prepared for us, rather than spend time cooking it ourselves. The fall in egg consumption since the 1970s can at least partly be explained by the demise of home baking and the cooked breakfast.
Developments in production techniques have also affected consumption patterns, driving the cost of some foods down, relative to others. In the 1950s, J Sainsbury grocers played a critical role in encouraging intensive rearing, factory farming and processing of chickens. This, more than anything, drove the fall in the relative cost of chicken, resulting in an increase in consumption from 1m birds in 1948 to 125m today, turning it from a once-a-year Christmas treat into the country’s most popular meat.
Bakers vs broilers. The left-hand axis shows grams of chicken bought per person per week from 1948 to 2010. The right-hand axis shows the numbers of eggs bought per person per week during the same period.