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In this briefing note, we document how the food purchases of households in the UK have changed over the recent period of recession and food price rises. We follow the same households over time, which allows us to control for fixed differences in households’ food purchasing behaviour. We show that, on average, real food expenditure (i.e. nominal expenditure on food divided by the food component of the consumer price index) declined and that households bought fewer calories and have switched to cheaper calories. This has coincided with a switch towards more calorie-dense types of food and substitution to more calorific food products within food types.

We also investigate how the nutritional quality of the foods that households purchase has changed over this period. We find that, on average, across a number of measures, the nutritional quality of foods purchased declined from 2005-07 to 2010-12. Households substituted towards less healthy food types, mainly towards processed foods and away from fruit and vegetables. However, they also shifted towards healthier food products within food types (for example, the average saturated fat content of processed food declined).

There are differences across households. Households with young children cut back on calories purchased by more than other household types. Pensioners reduced calories purchased by more than non-pensioner households without children. All household types reduced their real expenditure per calorie, with the average reduction being largest for households with young children.

Changes in the average nutritional quality of foods purchased also varied by household type. Pensioners, households with young children and single-parent households experienced a larger decline in the nutritional quality of the foods they purchased. This was partly due to greater substitution towards processed food and away from fruit and vegetables, which contributed towards increases in the intensity of saturated fat and sugar in their purchases.