The UK's Food Standards Agency recently published the results of its annual survey, revealing information about UK eating and shopping habits, consumer concerns about food safety and labelling, and attitudes to healthy eating and nutrition. Kate Barker draws some conclusions.

Established in April 2000, the main role of the UK Food Standards Agency is to provide advice and information to the public and to the government on food safety, nutrition and diet. The agency has carried out an annual survey since 2000, in order to gauge consumer attitudes, knowledge, behaviour and awareness of food safety, food standards and nutrition. Its most recent survey was carried out between September and October 2003 by market information company Taylor Nelson Sofres (TNS), who interviewed more than 3,000 people. It covers issues such as food labelling, healthy eating and nutrition.

Food labelling

In 2003, labelling of GM ingredients, trans fats and carbohydrates all hit the headlines, and this heightened consumer concern was reflected in the survey's results. "Significantly more" respondents claimed to look for nutrition information on food labels, while salt was the ingredient most commonly looked for.

The majority (60%) of respondents thought that food labels were easy to understand, while the number of people who think that there should be more information on labels rose four percentage points to 29%. The survey also showed that consumers are becoming increasingly sceptical about what they see on food labels - 41% have concerns about the accuracy of food labelling, compared to 34% and 35% in previous years.

The FSA introduced a new question on food labelling in its survey this year, which sought to find out how concerned consumers are about the accuracy of health claims on some product labels. The EU is currently introducing legislation that will regulate when health claims such as 'low fat' can be used, in order to help consumers understand and trust such claims. The FSA's survey showed that 52% of respondents were concerned about the accuracy of health claims such as 'low fat' and 'good for your heart'. The majority (58%) of those said they were fairly concerned, while 24% said they were very concerned.

The FSA correlated the responses to its labelling questions, and found that those with concerns about the accuracy of food labels were more likely to think that food labels generally contain too little information and were more likely to refer to all types of communication on labels, particularly nutrition data and ingredients listings.

Healthy eating

Amid growing concerns about rising obesity levels, 37% of participants in the survey said they were eating more healthily since the previous year, while only 6% thought their eating habits had become less healthy. The FSA has had a similar response percentage-wise to this question since its original survey in 2000, with the majority considering their eating habits to be unchanged from the year before, and a very small percentage (6-7%) considering their eating habits to be less healthy.

Participants were asked about the types of foods they eat, such as dairy products, fruit and vegetables, meat and eggs. As expected, the majority (84%) of people said they eat fresh vegetables/salads/fruits regularly (at least two or three times per week), but 8% of participants said they eat fresh fruit and vegetables only two or three times per month, and 1% said they never eat fresh fruit and vegetables. However, 34% of participants said they eat more vegetables and salad than they did a year ago, and 31% said they eat more fruit now than they did a year ago, while only 3% said they ate fewer vegetables, and 3% said they ate less fruit.

There also appeared to be a decline in fresh meat consumption, with 82% of participants saying they regularly or occasionally eat fresh chicken, down 3% from the previous year. Only 67% said they regularly or occasionally eat other fresh meat, down a whopping 10% from the year before.

Organics sluggish

The FSA survey results appear to reflect some people's belief that the organic boom is over, with 41% of respondents saying they never eat organic foods, 3% higher than last year. Only 14% claimed to eat organic foods regularly, and 12% said they eat organic foods occasionally.

Meanwhile the popularity of the Atkins diet appears to have had little effect on the consumption of carbohydrates in the UK, with 24% of participants saying they eat more bread/cereals/pasta/rice/potatoes, a rise of 1% from the previous year. Consumers instead seem to be restricting their intake of food containing fat and sugar, seemingly following the dietary advice of the FSA. While 29% said they eat less food or drinks containing sugar, 28% said they eat less food containing fat than they did a year ago, percentages that had changed little from the 2002 survey.

The FSA recommends that people eat five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, where one portion is about 80g. For example, one portion equals one banana, apple, pear or similar size fruit, two plums, one slice of melon or three heaped tablespoons of vegetables. When the FSA first carried out its annual survey in 2000, only 43% of respondents knew that the recommended daily consumption of fruit and vegetables was at least five portions. Knowledge of the "five-a-day" concept has increased steadily, and the 2003 survey showed that 59% of participants now know about the "at least five a day" recommendation.

However, knowing about the concept and putting it into practice remain two different things. Despite the upturn in awareness of "at least five a day", there has been little change in the number of people actually eating at least five portions of fruit and vegetables per day. While 26% claimed to eat at least five portions a day in 2000, this had climbed to only 28% in 2003. Knowledge of portion sizes has changed very little throughout the four survey years. In 2003, 73% of respondents knew that one apple constituted one portion, compared to 71% in 2000. In 2003, 35% knew that two plums equals one portion, compared to 33% in 2000.

Shopping

As in the previous three years, the majority of people said they carry out most of their food shopping at supermarkets, while only 4% use local shops for most of their food shopping, and only 2% use other sources, such as local markets or the Internet. The survey contained a new question this year, asking people about which outlets they bought food from in addition to where they bought most of their food. The answers showed that while the most popular outlets for food shopping were supermarkets, local shops also played an important secondary role for many consumers.

In recent years, the convenience store market has grown fast, with major retailers such as Sainsbury's and Tesco getting in on the act. One of the reasons for this is the popularity of "top-up shopping", whereby consumers buy a few groceries every few days, rather than holding out for the big weekly shop. While shopping once a week is still the most popular shopping method, with 47% of respondents shopping about once a week, 38% buy food or groceries for the household every two to three days, and 8% go grocery shopping every day.

When it comes to cooking, around half (49%) of respondents said they prepare or cook meals from raw or fresh ingredients at least once a day. With increasingly busy lifestyles and the popularity of on-the-go eating, it is little wonder that 26% said they cook using fresh ingredients only two or three times a week, while 10% said they only cooked or prepared a meal from fresh ingredients about once a week and 16% did so even less often. The main reason for not doing so was lack of time, mentioned by 47% of respondents, while 15% said that they did not do so because someone else cooks, 11% said they did not enjoy cooking, and 8% said they usually ate ready meals and convenience food.

Summary

Keeping track of trends such as these is important for food manufacturers and retailers, while the FSA can learn where it needs to work harder to improve consumer knowledge and ease concerns. The FSA added several new questions to its survey in 2003, and it will be interesting to see how responses change over the coming years. Developments such as greater legislation of food labelling and increasing concerns about obesity, together with general lifestyle trends, all have an influence on people's eating and shopping habits. While manufacturers and retailers will want to capitalise on current trends, the FSA will hope 2004's results show a greater improvement in people's attitudes towards healthy eating and nutrition.

In this article we could only highlight a few of the findings of the survey. To take a look at the full report, please click here.