Our love of all things vintage has meant that food synonymous with the 1970s has enjoyed something of a revival in recent years.

Particularly among the foodie community, retro items like Angel Delight and (canned) bacon grill are much sought after groceries with undeniable guilty pleasure value.

But compared to what we put in our baskets now, food from 40 years ago might be less of a guilty pleasure than you might think.

So much has changed since 1975. While we’ve learned more about food and nutrition, and welcomed an influx of global culinary influence into our kitchens at home, the range of ingredients we have access to has expanded almost beyond imagination.

An overall rise in our standard of living and the relative cheapness of food items now has also made grocery shopping more affordable, and further widened our culinary options.

But another significant although less considered difference between then and now is our capacity to store food at home.

Refrigeration as a domestic amenity caught on comparatively late in Britain: in 1970, less than two thirds of UK households owned a fridge, and considerably fewer (around one in ten) had access to a freezer.

In 2015, the percentage of homes without these amenities is much smaller; the 2011 census found that 99 percent of homes contained a fridge and 93 percent contained a freezer.

One would assume that more choice, more knowledge and more storage capacity would have resulted in a healthier average diet; but official figures say otherwise.

Obesity crisis

In the last 40 years, obesity in the UK has risen dramatically: in the early 1970s, obesity prevalence in the UK was recorded at less than five percent; whereas one study published in 2013 found that two thirds of Britons were overweight, and roughly a quarter were considered obese.

As we know, obesity is a major factor in the cause of type-2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

So what’s the cause of this epidemic? Could the answer, at least partly, lie in what we're buying from the supermarket?

We thought we’d explore this further, and take a look at the difference in nutritional value between a typical UK grocery shop from 1975, and its 2015 equivalent.

We also wanted to get a nutritionist’s take on the subject, so we got in touch with Charlotte Stirling-Reed, registered nutrition consultant and owner of SR Nutrition.

The 1975 Basket

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The 2015 Basket

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How did we choose what went in?

  • We drew up the lists based on three standard meals per day: breakfast, light lunch, and a hot evening meal.
  • We included popular snack options from the 1970s and their 2015 equivalent.
  • Ready meals, a staple of the 2015 basket, were obviously much less common and limited in terms of choice in the 1970s. Consequently, we've compiled the earlier basket with more fresh produce items: ingredients to make the meals which were generally considered the ‘rising stars’ of the time.
  • In the latter basket, we've chosen the chilled supermarket ready meal variations of these rising stars, and some other popular favourites.
  • For 1975, we’ve allocated one junk food night and chosen a traditional rustic family choice for the weekend in the form of sausage and mash.
  • We’ve kept sausage and mash for one weekend evening meal in 2015, but for Saturday we’ve chosen a chilled Indian ready meal.
  • In the 2015 basket we’ve included healthier and lower fat versions of staple items wherever possible, (olive spread and semi-skimmed milk as opposed to butter and whole milk for instance) as these are more widely available and purchased than they were in 1975.

Here's a detailed breakdown (click to enlarge):

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Key findings:

At first glance, there is little difference between the two baskets in terms of fat, calorie and salt content; more notable discrepancies between individual items from the two eras are evened out when the lists are considered in their totality.

  • Our choice of wholemeal bread significantly increases the fibre count for the modern basket; brown and seeded breads are today more wide-ranging and readily available.  
  • The 1975 lunch and breakfast staples (corned beef and whole milk) are higher in calories and saturated fat, but this shortfall in the 2015 basket is compensated for by other items. 
  • The pre-packaged evening meal choices are, overall, higher in saturates than their 1970s counterparts which would have been cooked from scratch.
  • This could be an indication that we're habitually consuming more fat and saturated fat in our evening meal than we have previously; and fat eaten later in the day is biologically more difficult to shift.
  • Sweet choices have become more luxurious and, as a result, a more concentrated source of fat and sugar. This is illustrated by the popularity of the plainer ice cream varieties of the 1970s (vanilla or Neapolitan) compared to the exponentially more indulgent and complex varieties available today (the Ben and Jerry’s line being just one example).
  • Perhaps the most notable difference then is that while the 2015 basket contains healthier food staples, the pre-prepared meals, snacks and sweet choices in it are considerably higher in sugar and saturates.

I’m fairly surprised by the similarities in the two baskets.’ Charlotte told us when we presented the findings to her. ‘It’s very interesting to see that the calorie, fat and saturated fat content of the two baskets is fairly stable.'

'However,' she went on to say, 'I’m not surprised that the sugar content of the 2015 basket is higher than in 1975.’

Another aspect I’m a little surprised at is that the fibre content of the 1975 basket is lower than that of the 2015 basket. More ‘cooking from scratch’ in 1975, as well as the likelihood that people were consuming more in the way of vegetables, should have meant that the fibre content was higher in 1975 than 2015, which appears to not be the case.

This could perhaps be due to the inclusion in the latter basket of the wholemeal loaf. Today, healthier breads are much more widely purchased; whereas white bread still accounted for around three quarters of UK bread consumption in the late 1970s.

But what about salt content? The difference between the two baskets (less than one gram for the entire week) is barely noticeable.

There has been a huge effort to reduce salt in our foods in the last 40 years, resulting in marked changes to the levels of salt in foods like bread and breakfast cereals; so it was also surprising to see the salt content of our 2015 basket still so high.’

The inclusion of pre-prepared ready meals in the latter basket is undoubtedly a contributing force in this. It’s no secret that eating too much salt is a major factor in the cause of high blood pressure; but what many people don’t realise is that you don’t have to add salt to food yourself to be consuming outside recommended limits.

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In the 1970s, price and availability were perhaps the biggest factors influencing our grocery choices. What most shoppers look for now, however, is speed and convenience, as Charlotte explains:

Times have changed dramatically in the last 40 or so years especially with regards to dietary habits, food technology and food availability. Technologies available at home, mixed with perceived limited time for cooking and preparing foods from scratch, mean that convenience around our cooking and eating behaviours is hugely desirable.

And this is what makes ready meals and pre-prepared foods so appealing.

In the UK we eat more ready meals than any other EU country and many of us also rely on snacking and grazing on foods throughout the day.’

But while these products do reduce the amount of time we spend preparing our meals, they also reduce the control we have over how much salt, and to a lesser extent, fat and sugar goes into our diet.

The amount of salt or oil someone might use when preparing a dish, if they use any at all, is adjustable. Pre-prepared ready meals don’t offer consumers this luxury.

Growing portion sizes

Another concern when it comes to pre-prepared foods is portion sizes.

For instance, a microwave meal for one may contain an amount of food which is more than what you might normally eat if you prepared a meal from scratch.

This is something that has been highlighted as a potential driver of the obesity epidemic by a number of UK experts.’ says Charlotte.

A report by the British Heart Foundation found that although some portion sizes in the UK have decreased since 1993, there is a clear trend towards an increase in portion sizes in specific food items.’

For example, some ready meals were found to be 45% larger in the report than those in 1993.’

It’s only natural that as consumers, we place a considerable degree of trust in the estimates of supermarkets and manufacturers, and will be more likely to finish what’s in front of us if it is indicated as a normal portion size.

This applies to ready meals, but it also applies to snack items such as chocolate bars and drinks too.

But as Charlotte illustrates, the differing interpretations between manufacturers of what constitutes a single serving can present a baffling situation for a consumer:

One of the biggest problems when it comes to supermarkets and portion sizes is consistency. The huge amount of variation between products and manufacturers is likely to leave consumers confused about what a ‘typical’ portion should look like. We also know that larger portions mean people eat more, and often don’t compensate for the excess calories throughout the rest of the day.’

Thankfully, the issue is one which manufacturers are waking up to.

The food industry and supermarkets are already starting to make changes to try and become more consistent and improve public health with regards to portion sizes.’ Charlotte tells us.

For example some manufacturers are currently working towards limiting the amount of calories in a standard chocolate bar or reducing the size of their cans of fizzy drinks.’

And, as previously mentioned, many brands and supermarkets are making an effort to offer foods which contain less salt.

However,’ Charlotte continues, ‘more needs to be done to ensure that consumers have a clear indication of what a portion is and what they should be consuming.’

What consumers can do

There are several measures consumers can take to retain control over what goes into their diet.

One of my main recommendations for families is always to try, as much as possible, to cook from scratch.’ says Charlotte. ‘This way you can be more in control of what is going into your food as well as the portion sizes you're eating, and it can even save you money.’

As mentioned earlier, one trait of modern life is that we don’t have as much time to spend in the kitchen as we used to. But there are ways those who want to reclaim their diets and portion sizes can get around this.

One is to plan ahead and make use of those facilities not everyone in the 1970s was lucky enough to have; the freezer.

Cooking from scratch isn’t always possible but if you can, making foods and meals in bulk and freezing or refrigerating can really help.’ advises Charlotte.

Additionally, in the UK we waste far too much food, so being savvy with the groceries we buy, making them last longer and using up leftovers in foods like soups, casseroles or even curries is a great way to save money and help us to eat better.

Diets which omit certain items are abundant, but it’s important to remember that healthy eating isn’t just about what not to eat; it’s about making positive choices with what you do eat. As Charlotte explains:

Instead of focusing on foods to avoid, it’s a good idea to focus on foods to include. So if you are choosing ready meals, make sure you add some extra veg or a salad on the side to up your fibre and nutrient intake. By doing this you may also be able to cut down on your portion sizes too, and therefore reduce the salt and calorie content of your whole meal.

Making sense of the label

We all know that the hustle and bustle of the supermarket can make the weekly shop a frantic experience, and because of this, we may feel less inclined to spend time studying the nutritional value of a product before it goes in our basket.

A useful tactic is to visit the supermarket when you know it will be quiet. Shopping during peak times (most often Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon, and early evening during weekdays) might encourage hasty and less healthy decision-making.

It’s also much safer to go armed with a pre-prepared list, and to take as much time as is necessary when inside to consider what you’re buying.

Another obstacle consumers face in-store is translating the packet values given into real numbers; the figures we are presented on the front of the pack with are seldom proportionally consistent across the products we buy. Sometimes these will be per 100 grams, sometimes they’ll be per serving, and at other times they’ll be per pack or half pack.

In most cases, hidden away somewhere on the back will be the per 100 gram nutritional values; and this is a good centre of reference to use.

This is a useful way to compare between products and choose the one that best suits your health needs.’ Charlotte explains.

Anything that contains:

  • Over 22.5 grams of sugar
  • Over 1.5 grams of salt
  • Over 17.5 grams of fat or
  • Over 5 grams of saturated fat

Per 100g is considered ‘high’ for those nutrients.

Solving the obesity problem

Between the two baskets is a marked increase in calories from sugar, and the evening meal options are heavier in terms of saturated fat. It’s certainly possible that this is playing a part in the nation’s growing waistline.

I think supermarkets have a huge role to play in helping to improve public health and in the obesity crisis.’ Charlotte explains.

A recent report looking at what the UK Government can do to reduce sugar intake in the UK, for example, has suggested that making changes to product placement and promotions on food items could have a beneficial impact on the UK’s sugar intake and hopefully on levels of obesity.’

However, while our grocery shop does play a role, there are a host of other determinants to consider.

One significant aspect which we haven’t taken into account is that, whereas 40 years ago, our grocery shop was a reliable indicator of what we would eat, it isn’t necessarily today.

As a nation we’ve come to frequent takeaways and restaurants much more often, again due to exponentially widening availability and choice; and perhaps even more so than the ready meal, this gives a huge degree of control away in terms of what goes into our food.

Furthermore, groceries have become cheaper in relative terms; which means we’re more willing to throw away what’s in the fridge in favour of a takeaway if we’re feeling spontaneous.

Some of the factors that are likely to be contributing to the obesity epidemic include the fact that we live in what is known as a ‘obesogenic’ environment.’ Charlotte tells us.

We now live in a world where access and availability of food is huge and changes and advances in food production mean that a lot of the foods we have such liberal access to are often energy dense and nutrient poor.’

It’s very easy to eat too much, and from a biological perspective it's also desirable to over consume rather than under consume too. Societal pressures and cultural norms also often lead us towards energy imbalance.’

For example, adverts on the television, promotions in supermarkets on high fat, high sugar foods and the typical foods we may feed young children may all influence our preferences, choices and ultimately eating behaviours throughout our lives.’

One of the upshots of this then, is education. We’ve learned so much about food and diet in the last 40 years, but are we putting it to use?

Many say that as a nation we need to be doing more to develop people’s dietary and nutritional knowledge, but also awareness of the nature of obesity and the risks associated with it. A better, wider understanding of it may not bring about a decisive, immediate end to the problem; but combining this with the other measures discussed will at least be a start.

The truth is, obesity isn’t caused by one single food, nutrient, gene or behaviour.’ Charlotte concludes. ‘Obesity is the result of a combination of biological, societal, environmental and behavioural mechanisms and there is no one solution to fix it. Multiple solutions however, together, over time can and will help to reduce the escalating rate of obesity.’