How our relationship with food evolved during the COVID-19 pandemic
In this article we consider the behaviour of UK consumers in relation to food throughout the various stages of the pandemic. By carrying out a semantic analysis and labelling all food-related content that they visited online – regardless of where that content is hosted – we can measure their interest in topics such as “dining out”, “healthy eating”, “vegan diets”, “alcoholic beverages”, to name but a few. (The labels are defined in the IAB’s Tech Lab Content Taxonomy Version 2.0.)
The UK-wide lockdown began on 24 March 2020, meaning that for a minimum of three weeks consumers would be spending the majority of their time at home, with minimal outdoor activity. The lockdown meant that all meals would now be consumed at home, with children home from school and working from home the new normal. As a result, demand for groceries remained consistent throughout lockdown. This can be seen through the stable level of interest in food and drinks content during the months of March and April 2020. Interestingly, in May 2020 we see an increase in visitors to food and drinks related content, specifically to the “cooking” topic. This increase could be explained by the sunnier weather of May and slight loosening of lockdown rules allowing for more social activity.
On the other hand, visits to content related to dining out dropped relative to March 2020, and by May had not shown signs of recovery with the focus for May was very much still on home cooking. This is to be expected with restaurants and bars only beginning to reopen in July.
March to April 2020: back to basics
So how did the lockdown impact cooking habits? From the table below, we are seeing that the number of individuals browsing through content related to the “Healthy cooking and eating” topic increased the most in the month of April 2020, compared with the month of March 2020. This could suggest that consumers used the lockdown to improve their diets and cooking skills, going hand in hand with the widely reported increased popularity of home workout videos during the same period – think Joe Wicks or Greg Wallace.
Food allergies and BBQ content audiences also shot up, albeit from a very low base (that is, both categories had very small audiences before the pandemic). The interest in BBQs and grilling is relatively unsurprising as consumers tried to vary their meals and take advantage of outdoor spaces, whether it was gardens or parks. Interestingly, beverages – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic took a tumble in April compared with the prior month. This could be explained by the stockpiling which took place immediately before and after the lockdown in March 2020 – a hypothesis supported by the data: the number of unique visitors to alcoholic drinks-related content in March 2020 was 6.6 times the level seen in February 2020.
April to May 2020: the rise to the woke consumer
By the month of May 2020, consumers had spent at least 6 weeks at home, enough time to re-engineer their daily routines and gain new habits. They also anticipated the end of the lockdown, and the change of season also prompted changes in interests.
Crucially for the food industry, the data suggests that the lockdown prompted consumers to re-think their eating habits, in an attempt to address health, environmental or societal concerns. Indeed, the number of individuals who browsed through content related to vegan diets and “Food Movements” topics (i.e. topics such as slow food, local food, organic food, farm-to-table, and so on) roughly trebled. Other areas which benefited from increased interest in May 2020 were BBQs and alcoholic drinks. This increase can be closely linked to the sunny weather, numerous bank holidays and loosening of restrictions allowing for more outdoor social activity.
One type of content worth highlighting is Desserts and Baking. While in relative terms it increased at less impressive rates than other categories listed in the table, it actually ranked first in terms of audience size. This is relatively unsurprising if we think back to our social feeds full of banana loaf and other impressive home-baked goods.
The behavioural changes prompted by the lockdown impacts many industries, including the food industry. Consumers developed and expanded interests in areas such as vegan diets, healthy cooking, organic, locally produced food, and baking. Clearly a new phase in our relationship with food has begun.
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