Where have the good foods gone?

Food companies are threatening to go offshore as the incentives for them to remain in Australia weakens. As pressure mounts on the Government to decrease Australia’s growing obesity crisis, the two sides of the story seem set to remain opposed.

At the same time, new consumer insights findings by Roy Morgan Research suggest that successful food brands will need to prove their nutritional and ethical credentials to consumers if they are to prosper in the future.

Consisting of three stages and conducted over a five year period, the research finds a growing number of consumers are no longer wanting — or trusting — the convenience of pre-packaged foods, and instead are investing more of their time and money in buying fresh food and cooking from scratch.

Warnings lights are flashing

Australia is now officially credited with having the worst obesity problem in the world, and the steps being taken to combat this are affecting the food industry, from the individual level and up.

In a recent submission made to a House of Representatives obesity inquiry, the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) said that the Government’s proposed ‘traffic light’ warnings system is flawed, failing to address the problem.

“These messages are not consistent with consumers being encouraged to consider their own dietary needs as part of overall lifestyle choices,” reads the statement.

It continues in saying that the proposed system “ignores the fundamental and mainstream nutritional wisdom accepted by nutritionists and dietitians that there are no unhealthy foods, only unhealthy diets.”

The AFGC claims that measures implemented already by manufacturers are helping lessen the crisis. They cite initiatives of the food industry that are improving the situation, such as providing $1 million of support for the National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey; the introduction of a new, voluntary Daily Intake Guide front of pack labelling scheme; and a commitment to responsible advertising consistent with concepts of moderation.

The imposition of taxes and subsidies on food and beverages for public health purposes is strongly opposed by the AFGC. The fears of the association are that they will be ill-targeted and socially inequitable. There is also a lack of solid evidence that consumption patterns would change as a result.

Highlighting that 200,000 Australians are employed in the processed food industry, the statement warned that “as global economic and trade developments continue to test the competitiveness of Australian industry, transnational businesses are under increasing pressure to justify Australia as a strategic location for corporate production, irrespective of whether they are Australian or foreign owned.

“In an increasingly globalised economy, the ability of companies to internationalise their operations is as significant as their ability to trade globally,” it said.

Modern dilemmas

So what is the problem with processed food?

In a recent interview held on the occasion of the Sydney Writer’s Festival, University of California, Berkeley professor of science and environmental journalism and award-winning author, Michael Pollan, argued that Western consumers are eating the wrong food and that we live in an era where nutrients have been elevated to ideology. Instead of “worrying about nutrients, we should avoid any food that has been processed to such an extent that it is more the product of industry than nature,” he said.

Michael Pollan warned that the ‘modern diet’ is killing us.

Pollan’s book ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma’ was named one of the ten best books of 2006 by both the New York Times and the Washington Post. The 2008 follow-up, ‘In Defence of Food,’ topped the New York Times best seller list for six weeks.

Pollan explained that the food industry has combined with science to confuse consumers over what is healthy and what isn’t. “Processing of food is very seductive to us because it offers us convenience and various labour saving advantages. But it’s more advantageous to the industry.

“It’s very hard to make money selling something like oatmeal but very easy to make it selling breakfast cereal, and even easier to make money by making breakfast cereal bars with layers of synthetic milk you can eat in the car. The economic imperative is to process the hell out of food but the health imperative goes in exactly the opposite direction.”

Pollan’s concern, as he explained is that “there’s something wrong with the way we’re eating and it’s leading to very high levels of chronic disease. Four of the top ten killers are chronic diseases linked to diet. So, the Western diet, this way we’re eating, is literally killing us.”

Pollan maintains that he is not in any way anti-science. He believes that the food science industry will get there one day, making us all healthy, happy individuals — but he also feels that the day is far away.

Drawing an important distinction between what he labels as nutrition and ‘nutritionism,’ Pollan explained that “nutritional science is important work and it needs to go on and be perfected.”

On the other hand, “nutritionism is an ideology, a way of looking at food that basically encourages us to think about it as a collection of nutrients, so that if you get the nutrients right you’ll be fine. Avoid saturated fat, eat omega 3s, etc. It divides the world into blessed nutrients that, if we ate enough of, we’d live forever, and satanic nutrients that we’re trying to drive from the food supply.”

The problem, for Pollan, is the lack of understanding in consumers when it comes to these nutrients, and the lack of clear information to give them a greater control over their eating practices.

“What confuses people is the proliferation of health claims which it doesn’t take a lot to get on a package, although they’re often misleading. I think that’s a big part of the problem.”

On top of that, Pollan highlighted the current super-fruit fad, which is attracting the health-conscious consumer segment.

“There is a lot of food industry commissioned science. If you have a product you want to sell, say the pomegranate, you can go out and commission a study and low and behold you’ll find some wonderful antioxidant in the pomegranate, and you can go to town and market it on the basis of its heart healthiness and its cancer prevention.

“There has been a study done of that type of science that shows it’s remarkably reliable in finding a health benefit in whatever it studies. That shouldn’t surprise us because food is healthy and every plant has antioxidants in it. You cannot study a plant and not find a health-giving antioxidant. The plants need them to kerb against the oxidated stress of photosynthesis.”

Reflecting on the lower quality of food products that are available today, Pollan explained that “the nutritional quality of a lot of our produce has declined during the industrialisation of agriculture, and we’re not exactly sure why.”

An example is the iron content of apples. To get the same amount of iron as you would have had from an apple in the 1950s, you would have to eat three modern apples.

Three apples a day to keep the doctor away? “We’ve had this nutritional inflation, and some of that is breeding. We’re breeding for bigger more beautiful, but less nutritious apples because you just can’t select for everything.”

Facing the findings

According to a new report from the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne, nine million adult Australians are now overweight or obese, which is more than the US. The nation is facing a ticking “fat bomb” with the potential to cause 123,000 premature deaths over the next two decades

It seems that Pollan’s words of warning have come at an appropriate time.

Social researcher Mark McCrindle stresses the importance of the recent findings. “The implications for Australia’s food industry are clear. Nutritional value, genuine freshness and the amount of natural ingredients will become increasingly important drivers of consumer purchasing behaviour on top of the more established factors such as taste, convenience and price.”

The food industry is at a crucial point in its history. The steps that will be taken from now on, will make a world of difference.

Maya Gorelik is a freelance journalist for FOOD Magazine.

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