Why the basket changed

Image copyright Science Photo Library

The weekly food shop, that trolley dash around a supermarket, is something of a Sisyphean task. While we might have an eye on the cost of things in our baskets, few of us stop to consider how exactly what we buy has changed over the last 50 years, writes Andrew Webb.

But changed it has. In 1947 the UK government began recording the prices of everyday items on a "national shopping list" to help calculate inflation. On that first list were items such as small white loaf, wild rabbit, tin of corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, prunes, tea, cocoa, condensed milk - some of which few Britons buy today.

Each year the list is updated, new products are added, while others quietly dropped. And so, by looking at these imaginary shopping baskets over time, you can unearth the changing shopping and eating habits of post-war Britain, with fascinating results.

Back in 1947 hardly anybody owned a fridge, so tinned food was enormously popular. This explains the presence of items such as canned salmon and condensed milk. Tea means loose leaf tea, with new fangled "tea bags" appearing only in 1980.

Yoghurt first appeared in the 1974 basket, and was joined by fromage frais in 1993. In 2007 olive oil replaced vegetable oil, as we now buy more of the former than the latter. In 2007, broccoli replaced Brussels sprouts, as we spend more on the stuff and it's available all year round. In 2008, the coffee shop muffin went in, in part to measure the growing spend away from the home. In 2010 garlic bread went in (but pitta bread came out), while 2013 saw "vegetable stir fry pack" added, and in 2014 "fruit snack pot" was added.

Breakfast cereals first entered the basket in 1952. In 1987 oats came out, to be replaced by muesli, perhaps reflecting the 1980s obsession with fibre and jogging. But it was quietly dropped in 2006. In 2001, cereal snacks appeared, changing to cereal bars in 2010. In 2012 "hot oat instant cereal" was added, reflecting the fact that many of us are now eating breakfast at our desks.

Perhaps the strangest thing I uncovered is that when products like Weetabix and Shredded Wheat were launched, they were intended almost as a bread substitute. Consequently, their early packaging recommends serving with jam and cheese, or in Shredded Wheat's case, a poached egg.

Image copyright ALAMY

Then there's the fallen, the products we no longer love. Corned beef, so proudly present in 1947, had dwindled and gone by 1993. The chicken Kiev, despite being invented in the 1970s, didn't appear in the basket until 2006. This was to improve coverage of the processed poultry market. Omitted in 2008, they were back in 2009, only to come out again in 2010 when hot rotisserie chicken went in.

But perhaps the greatest fall from grace is Smash instant mashed potato. Smash went into the basket in 1974, and it's worth remembering that products have to achieve significant sales and longevity to warrant a place in the basket. Thirteen years later, it was gone - I'm amazed it lasted that long. To eat, Smash was unremarkable, but the advertising campaign that went with it, totally unforgettable. "For Mash Get Smash!" chirped those loveable Martian robots.

TV production designer Peter Richardson, who worked on the very first Smash commercial, says the Martians gradually increasing laughter at humans "boiling [potatoes] for 20 of their Earth minutes" was a spur of the moment idea that happened on set the day before.

But what about this year? Well, compared with January 2014, food inflation is actually falling. Compared with the 1970s, when in one year food prices rose by nearly 20%, that's a good thing.

The shopping lists are an attempt to reduce this real world retail chaos to a series of numbers, numbers that will be a bit more, or a bit less, than the number the year before. The National Shopping List is an unbroken thread of data stretching back in time. As for what's new in 2015's basket, as well as what's been dropped, we'll have to wait until March to find out.

The Inflating Shopping Basket presented by food journalist Andrew Webb will be broadcast on Sunday 18 January on Radio 4 at 13:30 GMT. You can listen to it after broadcast via the iPlayer or download the podcast.

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