Page last updated at 14:07 GMT, Friday, 19 June 2009 15:07 UK

How Britain eats its way through recession

Michael Blastland
Different ways of seeing stats

Britain eats its way through recessions. When the going gets tough, the tough, it seems, tuck into pudding, says Michael Blastland in his regular column.

Expenditure in recession

Though we may cut back on many things, food is - mostly - off limits. Ah, the taste of bacon on the morning the GDP figures are released. You must have felt the craving.

The chart compares food with transport - which includes buying new cars. It goes back some time, but the story is the same. The red line (transport) swings around, the blue line (food) doesn't. As each recession bites, we bite back. Consumption of food is largely untouched.

Transport spending tends to fall, sometimes sharply. It's been the same in this recession too. Food sales have been robust. Car sales fell off a cliff.

What's the story here? Could it be that depression leads us by the nose to the biscuit tin? Are we simply comfort eating?

Maybe. But there's another possibility that has profound implications for the way we understand what happens to the economy - in good times and bad - and for how it might behave in future.

Apple and berry crumble
Grim economic headlines? Pass the custard

We have to eat. There's a bottom line for food consumption that we'll do almost anything to protect. If we're worried about money, it's elsewhere that we look for savings, for perhaps obvious reasons.

If you're economising, putting off the new car you planned this year seems to make more sense than going on a diet. It's the big-ticket items that are deferred, maybe with the thought that they can be enjoyed next year instead, if and when times improve.

It's true that food consumption is not entirely unscathed this time. There are reports of people switching to cheaper brands for example.

But this recession, like others, has been fascinating for the robust performance of food sales, with some of our supermarkets doing a roaring trade throughout the year.

One puzzle is that many commentators have found this a puzzle. So used have we become to thinking of retail as the engine of the UK economy that many eyes were turned here for evidence of economic collapse. Every little turn down in the numbers was seized as evidence.

But the retail crash didn't happen, largely because of the resilience of food sales. And of course, all numbers vary from month to month.

So sometimes they also took a turn up. When they did, as they often have this past year, "analysts" have reportedly declared themselves "surprised". Past data should have taught us something.

Worried yet?

But this food fact could also be an indication of something threatening, in a roundabout way. Here's a little hypothesis. Let me know what you think.

As we become richer - and we have become very much richer over the decades - we spend a smaller proportion of our money on basics, like food, and a larger proportion on items that are to some extent discretionary, like new cars. In the chart, the transport line has been rising much faster than the food line.

When recession strikes, spending on basics holds up best. It's discretionary spending that's clobbered. But since more of our spending is discretionary nowadays, the clobbering can take a bigger toll on the economy overall.

So perhaps there are underlying forces in the economy that suggest the swings could become more pronounced as an ever larger proportion of our spending becomes discretionary and we react to the gloom or optimism by switching it off or on.

Think of it like a cake, with cream on top. The cream is getting thicker for every generation, and that's how we've grown to expect life to be, so when a sudden gust blows the cream away…

Slightly unnerving, isn't it, if true.

Chocolate, anyone?

Add your comments on this story, using the form below.

You also have to take into account the nature of 'treats'. If I (or my friends) are feeling down, I'm now more likely to treat myself with a bar of chocolate (50p) instead of a new lipstick (£23). Nights out on the town become girlie nights in, and as well as bringing a bottle we bring a 'something nice'; crisps, sweets, cakes etc. As a couple we are more likely to stay in and cook a nice meal instead of going out to dinner. And I've noticed in work (where we've recently had to take a 5% pay cut), more people are bringing in 'nice things' to help cheer everyone up. Tighten the metaphorical belt and it's inevitable you must loosen the literal belt.
Pamela, Belfast

Perhaps another reason why food consumption increases in a poor economy is because we turn to food for warmth? With soaring gas and electric prices, it makes sense to purchase carbohydrates to feel warm and full when times get difficult. People will dine in more than turning to other forms of entertainment, too.
Jen, York

I have found that my grocery bill has gone up, but now I am less inclined to eat out and will cook in instead, which accounts for it. Overall, it ends up being far cheaper.
Katarina, Toronto, Canada

When it comes to financial belt tightening then expensive restaurant meals and the no longer cheap takeaways are put on the back burner. Rather than spend £25+ per head in an average restaurant at lunchtime I now prefer to spend a fiver on a thoroughly nourishing and enjoyable all day English breakfast in a spotlessly clean and friendly local cafe. If and when things do improve with the economy I would suggest that the swanky establishments will not recover their lost trade. Once folk discover how much they've been ripped off in the good times they'll adopt the once bitten, twice shy approach. Good on 'em!
Simon Ladd, Royston, UK

In the U.S. it seems that people are being much more careful about their food spending habits like choosing cheaper cuts of beef and thinking twice about what's going in their food basket. The graph doesn't tell us if people have cut back on meat consumption and replaced it with beans and more vegetables. This would be an interesting BBC subject.
Joan, USA

Perhaps it could be shown that food spending does change during down times, with the food being purchased in its original form, rather than in a processed form, which of course suggests the purchase of services, Rice in our town is commonly sold in 25 pound bags, in its natural form, compare the cost per pound with the 8 ounce parboiled version.
Wpo, Warsaw

Food is comforting, the act of eating and drinking in the presence of pleasant company helps reduce stress and produces a calming effect. No need for more detail except to say that I hate eating alone.
CJ, hayden lake, idaho

I agree that food sales will always remain strong. I would say that people will tend to cut back on the luxury food items such as eating out or the take away.

I think the strongest evidence of a change in attitudes to food and its consumption was when the recession was first beginning to hit the headlines. For about 3 weeks the home bakery section in my local supermarket had a very limited selection of flours and caster sugar was impossible to find in any shop. An indication that many felt that home cooking was an easy way to save money.
Michael Smith, York

I am the shopper and have certainly changed my buying habits since costs have increased so much. No longer do I pay extra for organic food and I have experimented to find the best frozen vegetable. In the past we ate strictly fresh vegs only. I am constanlty on the look out for sales and bargains rather than going to my favorite market and filling the basket no matter the cost. With all my efforts, I think my food costs are about the same as before the price increases.
carol, Cary, NC, USA

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