Sunday, 26 June 2011

Eating well (when budgets are tight)

'365.29' by jessyroos
under a CC license
In Greece, we are well into a second year of austerity measures. They come in waves of increasing severity. Most people, of those who still have a job, that is, have lost between 20 and 40% of their income, either because of pay cuts and increased taxes or because of a re-adjustment of their working hours. Others have lost their jobs altogether.

It is no rocket science that a reduced income leads to tighter budgets. So, will that affect the way we eat? Simple answer: Yes!

The decrease in the income of most people is larger than the expenses that one would call as "luxury". And if one puts aside hard costs, such as house mortgages, car insurance, etc., then whatever is left is shared among the expenses for food, health, clothes, transport, utility bills, education, etc. Taking into account that the expenses for food rank high on the household budget, it is easy to see why the way we eat is likely to be affected. This is a case of food crisis such as in other parts of the world, where the nutrition challenge has long been identified, but still it calls for careful thinking and concern.

Private label products sell increasingly well in supermarkets (the link is in Greek - Google translation available here), restaurants see a decline in the number of patrons, fast food chains and coffee shops introduce "deals" in their menus and so on. Unless the cost of all food ingredients drops accordingly, the temptation of an increasing number of people to choose food solely based on price is a risk.

Food safety is a legal requirement, so I wouldn't worry to much for that. But what about food quality? What about nutritional content?

The risk is known. As food is associated with health, eating bad will - at some point - lead to health problems. I'll skip the part where I say that addressing health problems costs money - to the individuals affected, as well as to the healthcare system. I'll just state that eating well (i.e., healthy) is need - not a luxury.

So, the challenge here is to ensure that affordable food is - nutritionally - good food. That isn't necessarily too hard to do. And there are ways to make people more aware of that. For instance:
  • We should be encouraged to cook more, using good ingredients and following a balanced diets. Bringing friends at home and cooking, instead of ordering pizzas could be an idea. Apart from eating better, it could also improve our quality of life in other ways.
  • We should take the time to have a look at the nutrition labels of foodstuffs we use. And, yes, we should try and understand what they tell us. Have a look at here (if you live in the EU) or here (if you live in the US).
  • We should encourage competition amongst economic operators of the food market, making sure that the bad ones get the message and rewarding the good ones with our trust.
In a few words, I think we should become more involved in whatever relates to our nutrition...

Saturday, 18 June 2011

Health and nutrition: Pyramids, plates and food labels

'Avocado snack' by Voxphoto
under a CC license

The more consumers become aware of the links between food and health, the more active the triangle of the food market, scientists and policy makers becomes.

In Europe, stakeholders of the food world are already engaged in the discussion on the nutrition and health claims that may appear on foodstuffs. An EC Regulation is in place (EC/1924/2006) but essential elements of that Regulation are still in the making. Such elements include the lists of health claims, which will define the claims and the exact conditions under which they can be displayed on a foodstuff.

Another element, quite important, is the definition of the nutrient profiles, which will make a food eligible to bear claims. Nutrient profiles are being worked on by EFSA experts; what makes it interesting, is that those profiles are, in very simple terms, an effort to determine whether a food is 'good' or 'not so good' and allow claims to appear only on the 'good' ones. Doing that, of course, is not an accurate science but it does rely on effectively summing up whatever established scientific facts on food and nutrition exist. In some places, nutrient profiles are already present and are taken into consideration in the advertising of foodstuffs - though mostly on a voluntary basis.

The food labels are likely to change yet once more in the future. In Europe, the GDA labelling (an industry-supported voluntary nutrition labelling scheme) has gained plenty of momentum. In the US there is the 'Rethink the Food Label' effort, which leans onto the public to put forward proposals for a better label. I can't predict what the outcome will be. Personally, I would prefer scientists to strongly pump input to the process. But I do see that food labels should make the most that consumer perception allows for.

Parallel to the labelling developments, the communication of nutrition facts is - once more - being re-processed. In the US, the typical food pyramid is being replaced. The new icon is a plate, accompanied with clear dietary advice. Is that going to be an effective way to further 'activate' consumers towards a healthier nutrition? Was the old, pyramid figure judged as ineffective (for sure, it seems it had caused some friction with the industry stakeholders)? Time will tell, I suppose. But - as always - reliable information is a key for good decision making; even if all at stake is just the supermarket shopping.