Food choices that lie


Our nearest supermarket has reorganized its stock and now has a healthy food aisle.

Under the psychology of supermarket layout this health food corral is right next to the fruit and vegetable section’s airy spaces, which are designed to lull shoppers into a relaxed if not mindless state in order to part them from more of their money.

But if the fruit and vegetables and corralled items are designated healthy what does that say for the rest of the supermarket stock? Less healthy? Not healthy? Junk food?

Quite possibly all of the above. Hence the sage advice to spend most time shopping around the outside of the supermarket among the whole food – stuff in its original form or near to. Apples and bananas, kumara and onions, meat and milk.

Manufacturers find little value in whole foods unless they can be tweaked or amended, added to or subtracted from. The products in the supermarket’s interior are less food and more packaging.

Fast food is the same. It may be cheap but is usually high in fat, salt, sugar, and additives and at times low in, or devoid of, any nutrition.

The obesity epidemic is complex and there are no easy solutions. Regulating the fast food industry could be a step in the right direction. [Photo: Getty Images]

To win in this toxic environment do we just need to smarten up? Is it buyer beware?

Boyd Swinburn, Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at Auckland University, describes supermarkets as “absolute experts in knowing where to place foods and how to price them and market them in a way that will increase sales.

“That’s their job and they do it very well,” he told The Spinoff. “The trouble is that they apply all the skill and knowledge to tilt the environment towards the wrong products.”

Professor Swinburn, a renowned clinical and public health researcher, is in favour of a sugar tax to address one aspect of poor food.

“It is one of the most widely used systems with the most evidence around reducing consumption of junk food around the world,” he says. “As far as I’m concerned, it has the strongest evidential credentials, but because it hits the back pocket of highly profitable industries – namely sugary drinks – they put in millions and millions of dollars to fight very hard against it, and they’ve spooked the government. To date, successive governments in New Zealand have been too scared of the industry to implement the tax,” he said last year.

But what of free choice?

Auckland University Business School’s Dr Milind Mandlik notes the road to free and participatory choice is paved with sweet, salty, and fatty foods that appeal to our taste sensors and wallets to our detriment.

A researcher of unsustainable consumption practices, including those that result in obesity, Dr Mandlik argues that while calls for Government interventions on the sale of items like sugary drinks are important, there are many other factors that must be considered in obesity prevention.

“The truth is we are more than consumers – we are people leading busy lives and living with personal struggles,” he wrote in a recent Newsroom column.

“Research shows these struggles connect to how we choose, buy, prepare and consume foods, often in an unhealthful way, leading to weight-gain and enduring levels of obesity over time.”

Free will promotes individual freedom to consume, without inhibitions, whatever is desired (in terms of food type and quantity) and places responsibility for choice directly on the consumer, wrote Dr Mandlik.

“But western society concern with ‘individual choice’ is a false premise: our research shows multiple fast-food outlets are not a genuine choice. Food marketers have created desires and steered our choices towards their products. They market food as entertainment, opulence and indulgence with the result that almost all of our research participants talked about the pervasiveness of institutionally-driven food marketing campaigns.”

Attempts by governments to regulate the food industry are slammed as ‘nanny state’ actions reducing our choice and disempowering us, he said

“But this free-will ideology of food-related consumption choices has led us to where we are today.”

Today 30 percent of the New Zealand population is classified as obese and, for the first time in history, the mortality rates of preventable diseases like diabetes, hypertension and stroke will outstrip those of infectious diseases which have plagued the world for hundreds of years.

“This preventable epidemic can only be stopped in its track when the whole of society understands the processes that impact our patterns of food consumption.

“We need a collective endeavor where individuals, communities, institutions of all kinds and policymakers genuinely work together to make meaningful improvements to our stance on obesity.”

More regulation of food is the way out, he says adding, “we just have to want it.”

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