Is coronavirus changing how we eat?

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Pic: GettyImages/ake1150sb
Pic: GettyImages/ake1150sb

Related tags COVID-19 coronavirus Functional food healthy diet plant-based

The coronavirus crisis is causing people to re-evaluate their diets because it has underlined the link between food and health, according to some pundits. However, habitual eating patterns are just that – habitual. To what extent has COVID-19 actually changed the way we eat?

The coronavirus pandemic, and associated global lockdowns, have had a profound impact on consumer behaviour. Locked in our homes and unable to visit bars and restaurants, many of us have turned to scratch cooking and baking.

Data from Google Trends reveals that UK searches for cinnamon roll, hot cross bun and sourdough recipes have spiked. Banana bread, soda bread and flatbread are also big gainers. As shelves devoid of yeast and flour attest, the country has gone from being ‘a nation of shopkeepers’ to a nation of home bakers.

According to FMCG Gurus, a research supplier that conducted a survey of 23,000 people last month, 72% of European shoppers said they will make ‘greater attempts’ to eat and drink more healthily in the future as a result of their COVID-19 experience.

“As a result of questioning their immunity and vulnerability to disease and illness, consumers will look to re-evaluate their diets and everyday lifestyles. This is something that will result in consumers taking a more proactive approach to their diets and lifestyles in order to maximize their health,”​ FMCG Gurus said in its report, Evaluating the Uncertainty & Future Outlook of COVID-19.

“This aligns with a current trend that has gained more mainstream attention over the last couple of years, as consumers have looked to embrace the concept of active nutrition. This has resulted in consumers attempting to exercise more and seek out products with health boosting ingredients (instead of just focusing on avoiding dietary evils) to stay healthier until as late in life as possible. This is a trend that will continue to grow in 2020 and beyond as a result of coronavirus,”​ the researchers predict.

“With the functional food space growing steadily throughout last year, the outbreak of coronavirus has further accelerated the demand for added health benefits in ‘everyday’ food products, especially those that offer immunity support,”​ Sonia Shekar and Liz Duijves, start-up innovation analysts at Rabobank, told FoodNavigator.

From organic to plant-based, 'healthy’ categories making gains

GettyImages-Zbynek Pospisil - vegetables local produce
Organic and plant-based prove popular ©GettyImages-Zbynek Pospisil

Categories that are viewed as healthier are purportedly benefiting.

A recent report from Ecovia Intelligence suggests that organic sales have seen a ‘hefty sales increase’ globally. Amarjit Sahota, founder and CEO of Ecovia Intelligence, suggested this was because organic products are viewed as healthier and safer than conventional alternatives.

“Whenever there is a food scare or health scare (like SARS), consumers look at disease prevention and improving nutrition. Organic foods get a sales boost as they are perceived to be healthier and safer than conventional foods.

“Organic foods avoid synthetic pesticides and agro-chemicals and are therefore considered to have less harmful chemicals than conventional foods. Various studies also show that organic foods have more nutrients than conventional foods. Consumers therefore buy organic foods as they are considered safer and more nutritious than conventional foods.”

Another area reporting accelerated growth is the plant-based sector. For instance, Spanish meat analogue brand Heura has actually been able to expand its distribution in supermarkets despite the lockdown.

"Heura has expanded its retail distribution by 13.7% in Spain during the lockdown with more supermarkets than ever offering their products on their shelves despite the current situation,"​ explained co-founder and CEO Bernat Añaños.

“Analysts indicate that 10-20% of the current global protein market will soon be displaced by plant-based alternatives due to a significant increase in consumer interest driven by a combination of health, safety, environmental and animal welfare concerns.”

‘People like to stick to their habits’

How deep do these changes go? While some sectors are seeing growth thanks to changing attitudes ushered in by COVID-19, there is also evidence to suggest that the changes are actually quite limited.

New data from the Netherlands Nutrition Centre (Voedingscentrum) looked at whether the Dutch started shipping, cooking and eating differently after the introduction of coronavirus measures. It found only ‘minor’ changes could be reported across the board.

A total of 1,030 Dutch people aged 18 years and older participated in the study. The majority (83%) indicate that they did not eat differently after the corona measures came into effect. They reported eating as much as normal and did not notice any difference when it comes to choosing healthy food.

Roel Hermans, nutrition and behaviour expert at the Nutrition Centre said he was not ‘surprised’ by the findings. “Eating behaviour is behaviour that has been learned and ingrained over the years… People like to stick to their habits.”

However, not all Dutch people reported no change: one-in-ten said that they started eating more healthily after the coronavirus measures came into force. Reasons given included: more time for healthy cooking and the desire to increase immunity. Some respondents also indicated they experience fewer ‘unhealthy temptations’ in the office or eating out.

Meanwhile, one-third of the participants revealed that they have started to pay more attention to weight and 5% indicated that they have actively started to lose weight.

Other changes include one-in-five claiming they are drinking less alcohol.

healthy unhealthy, fruit, junk food, choice Droits d'auteur  Duka82
Lockdown presents a challenge to healthy eating for some ©iStock/Droits d'auteur Duka82

Bad habits creep in for some

The COVID-19 lockdown seems to have prompted some to adopt a healthier diet - but conversely, there are those for whom the opposite is true. While 10% of respondents in the Dutch study said they are making healthier dietary decisions only slightly fewer – 7% - reported that they are actually eating less healthily in response to the crisis.

Reasons for this include more temptations at home and boredom. A fifth of the participants said they had started snacking and snacking more, and 11% said they had started drinking more alcohol.

“These findings will probably also be recognisable for some people,”​ Hermans said. “Your own home environment can also be an incentive to eat unhealthy food or drink alcohol. For example, if you have a lot of sweets and snacks in your house, you are more likely to eat them.”

And just because we are cooking at home more - that doesn't necessarily mean what we are cooking is healthy. Data from appliance manufacturer Breville revealed that searches for recipes that mimic popular fast food items have surged in the UK, for instance. 

"Data shows there have been 341,370 searches in total for menu items from the UK’s top chain takeaways in March alone. Brits were searching for inspiration on how to recreate these famous foods at home,"​ Breville noted. 

The 'most missed' menu item would seem to be KFC's Popcorn Chicken, followed by McDonald's Big Mac and McFlurry and Nando's Peri Peri Chicken. 

Despite these signs that people aren't all making positive changes to what they eat, Hermans remains optimistic that healthier diets could gain ground as a result of the pandemic. "Keep healthier eating and drinking less alcohol: it is health gain if you can maintain newly learned habits and make a lasting change in your eating behaviour."

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