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Long term declines in carbohydrate consumption

1 April 2016

Amber Cottingham, Analyst, amber.cottingham@ahdb.org.uk, 02476 478 698

During the last 40 years in home consumption of potatoes has declined by some 67%, a greater decline by weight than any other starchy food in the same period. For a long time the main culprit for this decline appears to be the rise of other carbohydrates such as rice and pasta, but is this really the case? Or is it, more worryingly, due to a general reduction in the consumption of carbohydrates?

Defra’s Family Food survey has been running in one form or another since 1940 and delivers in depth statistics on in-home food and drink purchases. It provides an opportunity to look at long term trends in UK consumers buying habits and what affect these might have on our industry.

Consumption trends

The above graph shows the average weight in grams consumed per person per week in UK households since 1974. The scale of the decline in fresh potato consumption is clear when it is seen over as many years and represents a 67% decline overall. Bread has seen similar declines over the years as well, with a 74% decline in white bread consumption.

Although sales of fresh potatoes have been on a downward trend, the amount of processed potatoes consumed in UK households has more than doubled over this period with the greatest increases coming in the form of chips.

Though often attributed to the decline in fresh potato consumption, gains for rice and pasta may not be the whole reason. The scale of growth in these has not matched the declines for fresh potatoes and bread. Since 1974 overall consumption of rice has increased by 495%, from a very low base, likewise pasta consumption has increased 182%.This is to be expected when new cuisines are introduced to a country. Mintel suggests nearly nine out of ten people are now eating ethnic foods in the home.

Government guidelines suggest consumers aren’t eating enough carbohydrates in their diet. This could represent an opportunity for the potato industry, as potatoes are one of the healthier carbohydrate options readily and cheaply available.

Changes in consumer habits

With the increase in diets such as Atkins and Dukan since the early 2000’s and more recently the Low GI and Paleo diet, it’s no surprise that consumer intake of carbohydrates has seen a decline. Almost two thirds of UK consumers are actively moderating their carbohydrate intake, according to Future Foundation, to some extent in the belief that it is a healthy lifestyle choice despite government guidelines. Although there is evidence to suggest low carbohydrate diets help you to lose weight, they are often considered unsustainable and more often than not a balanced diet is considered the best way to get healthy and maintain it.

Concluding comments

Although total potato sales have been in decline since the 70’s there is a deficit in the current suggested amount of carbohydrates recommended by the government. While rice and pasta have had an impact on potato consumption over the years the total decline in carbohydrate intake seems to suggest people are eating less starchy foods overall and actively restricting their carbohydrate consumption. By trying to change consumer’s misconceptions of potatoes, through activity such as the Potatoes: More than a Bit on the Side campaign, hopefully more people will include them as part of a healthy lifestyle.