Defusing Britain’s obesity time-bomb

At a time when worries about obesity within the population are escalating, new research into purchasing habits offers an insight into what the overweight are eating

The so-called obesity time-bomb has become a hot topic in the national press in recent months. Growing concern that the UK will follow in the footsteps of the US, leading to a sharp rise in the level of heart disease and problems such as Type II diabetes, has been the subject of much debate.

The is no doubt that there has been an increase in the number of children and adults who are classed as obese. According to data from TNS Superpanel, 23 per cent of women and 22 per cent of men are classed as obese. This classification also applies to one in six children under the age of 15 years old.

The majority of the research that has been conducted into understanding obesity and the risk factors associated with the disease has been based on self-reported food consumption by obese patients. But little research has looked at what overweight consumers purchase from grocery stores and how the shopping habits of the average household have changed during the past decade.

Research from TNS Superpanel shows that there have been significant changes in the types of food purchased by consumers in the past 12 years. The total grocery market in Britain is valued at about &£69bn. Strong growth in the market has been driven since the mid-Nineties by the development of new product ranges and the move toward premium convenience food. There has been growth of more than ten per cent in the past two years alone, despite the increased focus by retailers on “everyday low pricing”.

The most significant change in grocery sales has been the increasing sales of pre-prepared convenience foods. The market has grown exponentially in response to people spending less time in the kitchen. In 2003, UK consumers spent more than &£1bn on chilled ready meals. Pre-prepared fruit and vegetables have shown similar growth, with annual sales increasing to more than &£500m in 2003.

With so many factors driving grocery sales since the early Nineties, it is difficult to pinpoint the impact which consumer purchasing has had on obesity levels. However, the TNS Superpanel data has enabled the Body Mass Index (BMI), which is calculated using weight (in kg) divided by the square of height (in m), of households across the UK to be matched with their grocery shopping patterns. The results have shown interesting differences in the types of foods purchased by high-versus-low BMI households.

TNS Superpanel classifies households into one of four groups. These are “underweight” which is a BMI of less than 20; “healthy'”, a BMI of 20 to 25; “overweight”, a BMI of 25 to 30; and “obese”, which applies to a BMI of more than 30.

The households classified as “obese” spend &£45 more per head on their grocery shopping a year than households classified as “healthy”. This is in spite of the fact that “obese” households tend to be drawn from the lower socio-economic groupings.

The TNS data shows that the volume of groceries purchased by “obese” households is more extreme than their expenditure. This group is particularly attracted by “multi-buy” and “linksave” promotions. The lower socio-economic groups are able to use such promotional mechanics and discount retailers to maximise the volumes they buy while minimising the cost.

There are a number of grocery categories where this pattern of purchasing is particularly marked. For instance, households that are classified as obese spend 29 per cent more on ice cream than healthy households. They also spend 25 per cent more on bacon rashers, 18 per cent more on margarine and 13 per cent more on crisps than healthy households.

In contrast, while all groups are falling short of the “five-a-day” fruit and vegetable intake recommended by the Department of Health, households classified as obese buy less fruit and vegetables than other households. Despite their higher expenditure on groceries generally, they are spending six per cent less on fruit and vegetables. Consumption data from TNS Family Food Panel supports this lower spending trend and shows an “obese” household eats ten per cent less fruit and vegetables than other households.

Despite these purchasing habits, when compared with households considered healthy, those classified as obese are more likely to respond positively to the statements “I am often on a diet to lose weight” and “I should do more about my health”.

In terms of what is driving behaviour within households classified as obese, these statements tend to indicate that while such families recognise that their weight issue should be addressed, this is not being translated into their day-to-day life. The alternative offer of health foods fails to ring true with this group.

It remains to be seen what the effect of the UK’s expanding waistline will be. Pressure on food suppliers and retailers to respond to changes in customer needs is going to increase significantly in the next decade. But while such companies can continue to develop healthier alternatives, manufacturers and retailers cannot force consumers to buy such products. The solution is going to require a cohesive approach from the food industry, the advertising world, health lobby groups and the Government.

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