Low-fat, microwave curry, sir?

Older people are eating more foreign foods and ready meals, and are more concerned about healthy diets. The young seem to want just convenience

In 2001, more than 180 billion separate portions of food were consumed in UK homes. Over a third (37 per cent) of these were consumed by the 35- to 64-year-old age group, with almost a quarter (23 per cent) eaten by the over-65s.

For the over-65s, lunch is the most important meal of the day, with almost a third (31 per cent) of all food eaten by this group being consumed at lunchtime, according to a study by Taylor Nelson Sofres on the eating habits of the “grey market”. The under-65s, in comparison, tend to eat more at evening meals.

Over the past five years, convenience and pre-prepared foods have become more popular, partly due to the range and quality of meals available, and partly because of increasing demands on individuals’ time from other activities. One of the main growth areas in pre-prepared foods has been in the grey market, with consumption in this age group more than doubling from 72 million pre-prepared meals consumed in 1996 to 165 million in 2001.

In addition, the biggest increase in the consumption of microwaveable meals over the past five years has also been among older people, with a 23 per cent increase among men and a 34 per cent increase among women over 65 years old. This contrasts with increases in microwaveable meal consumption of just five per cent among 35- to 64-year-olds, and just three per cent among 17- to 34-year-olds over the same period. In contrast, consumption of frozen, tinned and packet-wrapped food has shown a small decrease across all age groups since 1996. This could be due to an increase in the consumption of fresh foods and “healthier” alternatives.

In recent years, there has been a huge push by health authorities and GPs to encourage people to adopt a healthier diet, cutting down on fats, salt and sugar while at the same time increasing their consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables. To complement this drive, supermarkets and leading brands have launched “healthy eating” product ranges.

Unsurprisingly, women consider themselves to be more conscious of the need to cut down on sugar, with over half (51 per cent) expressing concerns about their sugar intake compared with just under two-fifths (37 per cent) of men across all age groups. However, men and women aged between 17 and 34 are least concerned about reducing sugar consumption and eating healthily. This suggests either that people become more aware of diet-related health issues as they get older or that, despite younger age groups being aware of the benefits of a healthy diet, selecting healthier foods is not a priority for them at this stage in their lives.

Interestingly, attitudes towards healthy eating vary significantly by age and gender. Among the over-65s, nine out of ten women and almost eight out of ten men claim to enjoy healthy eating. In comparison, among 17- to 34-year-olds, fewer than three-quarters of women (73 per cent) and just over half (54 per cent) of men like to eat healthily.

The over-65s have also increased their intake of “international” foods in the past five years. Since 1996, consumption of curry among the over-65s has increased by 62 per cent. This contrasts with more modest increases among 17- to 34-year-olds (30 per cent) and 35to 64-year-olds (36 per cent). These types of food are already popular among younger consumers, so the market may be closer to saturation.

While these findings suggest that older consumers are changing their eating habits and becoming more receptive to new foods, the over-65s remain relatively indifferent to international cuisine, with only four out of ten men (39 per cent) and just over a third (35 per cent) of women over-65 claiming to enjoy international dishes.

Clearly there are differences between the eating habits of different age groups. TNS’ findings suggest that the over-65s have responded positively to healthy eating initiatives and are leading the way in adopting alternatives. This is reflected not only in the food they eat but also in their attitudes towards food and the way in which it is prepared and served.

What is surprising is the lack of recognition of the importance of healthy eating among younger people and especially among younger men. Though this age group is aware of the benefits of a healthy diet, health considerations are less likely to be important to them and so there is a tendency to opt for less nutritious alternatives – which may also be less expensive. The study suggests that health professionals and promoters of health foods have a prime opportunity to target younger people with new healthy eating initiatives that may appeal to their particular lifestyles.

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