Where will the surge in online food ordering take us?

27 April 2021

Many people are now aware of some type of digital food delivery platform; JustEat, Deliveroo, and UberEats are a few of the most well-known brands in Scotland. The popularity of these platforms has soared throughout the COVID-19 pandemic with people unable to visit food outlets in person. Consumers are turning to delivery platforms to bring the dining out experience to their door, however little is known about the impacts of this habit on consumers’ health. This trend is looked at in greater detail in Obesity Action Scotland’s 2021 Ordering Food Online Factsheet.


How Popular is Online Food Delivery?

In Scotland, nearly 70% of takeaway deliver orders are now completed by digital platforms compared with just 30% ordered by phone call (Food Standards Scotland). Of these digital orders, the majority are taken by JustEat, which is the biggest food delivery platform in Europe. The pandemic has only accelerated the usage of these platforms with the food delivery sector being one of the few industries that has grown over the past year. In fact, during the last 3 months of 2020 JustEat saw its UK delivery orders increase by 387% compared to the same period in 2019. Other big names such as Deliveroo and UberEats have also seen significant up-turns over the past year.


Where is it going?

While these recent habits have been fuelled by the effects of the pandemic, the online food delivery sector believes the changes are here to stay. These expectations are reflected in growth plans announced by the big delivery platforms. For example, in 2021, Deliveroo plans to increase its service coverage to 100 new towns and cities in the UK. On top of this, restaurants are likely to grow their own delivery capacity, with Domino’s announcing plans to open 200 new branches following the pandemic along with a new delivery app. It is clear that the sector believes the future is bright for business.


What could this mean for consumers?

Up until now there has been relatively little research into the effects of this surge in online food delivery. However, there is information on what food groups and outlets are popular on delivery platforms. In Scotland in 2019 the most-used takeaway and delivery outlets included McDonalds, KFC, and Domino’s which is worrying given the poor nutritional quality associated with their food. Alongside the actual food being ordered, there is also the concern around the kind of lifestyle these platforms promote. With the entire ordering process being completed online it allows consumers to remain inside and potentially increase sedentary behaviour.


Future Policy

Understanding this trend and its potential impacts on the people of Scotland should be a priority for policy makers. Further research should be commissioned in order to understand whether these platforms are simply changing where people consume food orders (e.g., at home instead of restaurants), or if they are changing the type and quantity of foods consumed (Partridge et al. 2020).

What is clear at this point is that unhealthy food outlets are front and centre within delivery platforms. This is a potential problem because this sector is growing and the state of the Scottish diet is already poor (FSS, 2020).

However, this could be addressed with regulation. For example, regulation on delivery apps that requires them to only display healthy food outlets on home screens. On top of this, the out of home sector, much of which is now available on delivery platforms, should be required to provide nutritional information on their food products in order for consumers to make more informed choices. Delivery platforms would then be able to show this information on their online menus which would also improve transparency and allow consumers making more informed choices.


Final Thoughts

Where the online delivery trend will take us is yet to be fully understood. If the habit is causing people to consume more of the wrong kinds of food, then there is potential for it to have a damaging effect on the health of large user groups. On the other hand, the high visibility of delivery platforms could be seen as an opportunity to encourage people to opt for healthier choices more regularly. The outcomes will likely depend on the level of freedom given to delivery platforms, and whether or not the trend is viewed as an important health issue by policymakers.


Blog written by Tom Steiner, Postgraduate student intern at OAS