Living through history. Our changing food environments. 1980s – 2010s.

Ultra-processed food (2)

Within two generations there has been a complete restructure of our food environments from mainly fresh foods prepared in the home, eaten with family or friends at the table with plates and utensils; to a high proportion of fast food, convenience food, snack-food, confectionery; from or at restaurants, cafes, take-away outlets and food-halls; out of bags, packets, bottles, cans, tubes, tubs … and eaten on the run.

At home

After the social revolutions of the 1960s – 1970s women began to have careers. Juggling parenthood and work in the 1980s, micro-wave ovens became popular as did a range of convenience foods, frozen foods, frozen meals, packet breakfast cereals; and single-serve food products for packed lunches and between meal snacks. Take-aways were an added convenience. Home-delivered foods, beginning with pizza, later extended to up-market meals. Entertaining moved from Bar-B-Qs to gourmet and international cuisines (2).


Legislation extended supermarket trading hours in the 1980s to Saturday afternoon, then evenings, and Sundays; effectively crowding out specialist butchers, greengrocers, milk-bars and corner stores. In the 1990s supermarkets moved into petrol attached to convenience stores, further driving out corner stores (3). The large retailers gradually bought out competitors. Australia today is dominated by two supermarket chains (10).

Fast Food

Fast-food restaurants had arrived by the early 1970s (3) with slow growth initially and only about 30 stores for each major outlet by the early 1980s (4). In 1978 McDonaldsTM drive-through opened. In 1983 Domino’sTM began home delivery. The trends for fast-food in or outside home thereafter surged (4). Today fast-food in Australia is dominated by SubwaysTM (1400 stores), McDonaldsTM (970), KFCTM(617), and Domino’sTM (528). (5).

Restaurant Dining, Bars, Cafes and Food Festivals.

Dining out in my childhood was rare and in the 1970s meant an entree, steak, potato, vegetables, bread and butter, dessert. Hotels were frequented only by men. Cafe dining was rare with people instead meeting for afternoon tea in homes or community groups.

With relaxation of laws allowing licensed and ‘bring your own’ restaurants; and later alcohol allowed in cafes and restaurants even when food was not consumed; meant a surge in restaurant dining and business lunches in the 1980s and the first wine bars appearing (3). This surge dipped when fringe benefits tax was introduced and again in the recession years of the 1990s (3); then surged again in the 2000s together with wine bars, coffee-culture dining, the emergence of food-halls, and having “brunch”. (2,3)

Coffee Culture

From the tea-drinking era of my parents an influx of Italian and Greek immigrants meant slow infiltration of the coffee-culture, firstly with brewed and percolated coffee (1970s) (2); onto Cappuccino, Espresso, Latte and the Australian ‘Flat White’ (1980s); Baristas; coffee art;  international franchises (1990s); and drive-throughs (2000s). (3)

Gourmet Food

In the 1980s gourmet foods appeared with fetta cheese, satay sauce, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, balsamic vinegar, walnut oil, anchovies, sea-salt and more. Food Festivals became an attraction with The Taste Festival (now known as The Taste of Tasmania) in Tasmania in 1989 with wine, beer, food stalls and tasting tables; Melbourne Food and Wine Festival in 1993 and Tasting Australia in Adelaide in 1997. Television cooking shows began and are now common and popular. (3)

Health Messages

Dietary Guidelines recommending foods low in saturated fat were issued in 1982 (6). Functional foods with food components demonstrating health benefit beyond basic nutritional function were approved in Australia in the 1980s and regulated by Food Standard Australia and New Zealand (7). In 1989 The Australian Heart Foundation tick of approval was launched, and remained for 26 years (8). The 1990s saw stricter labelling due to reported food sensitivities. The Dairy Corporation began its osteoporosis campaign (3). In the 2000s low GI (glycaemic index) foods were promoted (9). Diet books became popular: Pritikin, Atkins, Organic Food, Low-carb, Low-fat, Gluten-free, sugar-free. Food manufacturers responded to all these calls with various food products.

What happened to food?

Supermarkets one-stop shops means being confronted with confectionery and pre-prepared foods that previously one had to make trips to other outlets for. Petrol stations with convenience stores mean people are tempted by confectionery and fast-food choices. Vending machines with snack-foods and sweetened beverages are on railway stations, petrol stations, airports, entertainment venues, retails shops, pharmacies.

In her submission to a senate inquiry into obesity in Australia earlier this year, respected nutritionist Rosemary Stanton provided an estimate that in the late 1960s supermarkets had about 600 to 800 foods for purchase (11). In June 2018, the George Institute analysed packaged food products available from Australian supermarkets. There were over 40,000 items (12) including processed sauces, confectionery, canned food, oils, dairy products, bread, soft drink, cordial, biscuits, chocolate, pies, butter, salty snack food; as well as core foods of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds, meat and fish. Only 47% were considered core foods. More than half were considered discretionary/ junk foods. Six out of ten were highly processed. Nearly all convenience foods (read-to-eat meals, prepared sauces or dressing, canned/ processed meats, frozen meals, desserts) were ultra-processed.

In the 2000s, Australians were spending 26.8% of their food budget on meals outside the home with take-aways and fast-foods accounting for 55.9% (3); and 21% of lunches are eaten at the desk (12). Adults and 50% of children average salty snack-foods about 5 or more times a week (13). In 2011, adults’ discretionary food intake was 35% of total kilojoules. In teenagers, it was 41% (14).

Within two generations are food environments have completely changed. I will explore the ramifications of these changes in future posts.

Disclaimer: Nothing in this article or on this website should be taken as medical or dietary advice. Anyone reading any information provided within should seek advice from their own medical practitioner for any issue, disease, illness or health-related problem they may have. Always seek your own advice from a medical practitioner or dietitian before changing your own diet.



This is a series of posts on our changing food environments.

Living through history. Our changing food environments 1950s to 1970s
Living through history. Our changing food environments 1980s to 2000s


Notes and References:

(1) Image Leonie Elizabeth. February 2018.

(2) Back in Time For Dinner. ABC.TV. Series July 2018.

(3) Australian Food Timeline

(4) Now serving: the history of fast food in Australia. ABC. 08 Sept, 2017.

(5) Australia’s Top ten fast food franchises. Motley Fool. 04 April, 2014

(6) Australian Dietary Guidelines. 1982

(7) Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Schedule 4 Nutrition, health and related claims; and Standard 1.2.7 Nutrition, health and related claims. FSANZ Act 1991

(8) Heart Foundation Tick. The Australian Heart Foundation.

(9) Glucose Revolution. Jennie Brand-Miller, Anthony R Leeds. 1999. Hodder Mobius

(10) Australian food retailing in Overview of Australian Food Industry. 2013. Department of Agriculture. Australian Food Statistics.

(11) Rosemary Stanton. Submission # 112. Senate Select Committee into the Obesity epidemic in Australia. Parliament of Australia.

(12) Mintel market research. Australians Are Changing Their Food Habits.

(13) Potato chips sales surge. from Mintel market research

(14) Australian Bureau of Statistics. Health Survey 2011.



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