It's nearly Foodmass

Food has never been more readily available or cheaper. Take a moment to thank the farmers when you sit down to Christmas lunch this year -- and don't overindulge

Christmas is coming. The halls are decked with boughs of holly (plastic), and decorated with snow (artificial). Tips for Christmas (stress-free) have been appearing since November. Children are over-excited and desperate shoppers are looking for the perfect presents for people who have everything. At work, Christmas office parties have popped and fizzled… 

And everywhere there are plans to spread tables with food that is as delicious and nutritious as decided by the cook.  

Already there are items in the press about the expense of turkeys and hams this year, and of course there are weightwatcher warnings about how to indulge without spending the rest of the year getting rid of the evidence – a minute on the lips and a lifetime on the hips… 

The fundamental problem with food is that it is everywhere and cheap – cheaper as a proportion of discretionary income than it has ever been.  

In October Campbell Live investigated and, with considerable surprise, revealed the results: the food basket was cheaper than it had been in 2011. What wasn’t pointed out was that during that time both incomes and the expense of producing that food had increased significantly. Last year average salaries and wages increased 3.0%; food increased 1.2% and on farm expenses increased 3.4%. These are Statistics NZ data for the year to June. 

Farmers continue to be squeezed financially, yet go on producing nutritious food more efficiently in terms of fertiliser use and greenhouse gas production than farmers in many other countries can achieve. Scientific data supports the case. 

Sustainability isn’t, however, top of mind at Christmas (and any other time) when people are reaching for another tasty morsel or ten.  

Results from the Nielsen Global Snacking Survey involving 30,000 consumers in 60 countries released in September identified ‘pure enjoyment’ as the main reason for snacking; it tastes good and the experience is pleasurable. Chocolate tops the world as the number one snack-type, chosen by 64% of people, closely followed by fruit at 62%; vegetables rank third above biscuits, bread and yoghurt. 

In the Asia-Pacific region, 69% of respondents chose chocolate. 

To add to the concern, a report for the World Health Organisation this year indicates that New Zealand and Australia are in the top four countries with the fastest growing annual fast food transactions per capita and the top three in the fastest growing age-standardised body mass index. In fact, New Zealand beats 25 high-income countries in the body mass index.  

It isn’t a record to be proud of. 

Chocolate and takeaway food have little to do with farmers and sustainability. 

They are to do with craving and convenience. 

Research to be published in Appetite in January investigated the reasons people give for snacking behaviour involving high proportions of fat and sugar. Over 1500 participants were involved in the research, which examined motivation and then repeated the survey a month later. Six categories of reason were identified: opportunity induced eating, coping with negative emotions, enjoying a special occasion, rewarding oneself, social pressure, and gaining energy.  

'Enjoying a special occasion' and 'opportunity induced eating' were most common reasons to snack. Younger people reported a higher score for all reasons except ‘to enjoy a special occasion’. Women indicated a higher score than men on 'coping with negative emotions', 'enjoying a special occasion' and 'gaining energy'. Dieters reported a higher score for snacking because of 'social pressure', to 'reward oneself' and to 'cope with negative emotions', with the latter also being related to a higher BMI. Finally, a higher education was associated with 'enjoying a special occasion'. 

The research was done to identify future health interventions and the recommendation was to ‘allocate more attention to diminishing unhealthy snacking with regard to the six identified categories, specifically focusing on enjoying a special occasion and opportunity induced eating’.  

So Christmas is cancelled, the cupboards should not be stocked, and fast food outlets should be closed down…. 

Or people could be enabled to understand what is happening. 

Elaine Rush, Professor of Nutrition at AUT, was named a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to health in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list this year. She has developed various adult programmes working with Pacific Island mothers (cooking for a family of six for $25 a day), and the Indian community (concentrating on pregnancy and growing children, and basing the cooking around eggs, milk, lentils and kiwifruit). She also developed Project Energize which provides practical ‘hands on’ support and assistance to primary and intermediate schools and teachers with any initiatives that increase the quality and quantity of physical activity of Waikato children.  

The whole of New Zealand could benefit from her work, but with constant budget cuts in the health portfolio, the chances of preventative action decrease. 

A second route is through government policies such as those advocated by Professor Boyd Swinburn of Auckland University. Professor Swinburn, is the Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland, and is co-Chair of the World Obesity/Policy and Prevention Steering Committee. He is a vocal advocate for healthy food with traffic light labelling, removing GST from fresh food, taxing sugary drinks and having healthy food the norm in government departments, schools and hospitals. At the same time he recommends restricting advertising of unhealthy food. Professor Swinburn’s concerns are clear: "A few decades ago the low-fat message came out and companies reformulated their products. They pulled the fat out and put the sugar in. And obesity continued to rise."  

Sugar is most obviously added to processed foods for flavour, textures and as a preservative. 

In America it is in the form of high fructose corn syrup, which is cheaper than sugar from cane or beet. Although there has been considerable bad press about the use of HFCS, the problem is not the HFCS per se, it is the amount of sweetening that is put into food to make it more appealing. And when something is appealing, available and cheap, consumption increases.  

At the end of November, the International Agency for Research on Cancer released results from a study investigating the link between obesity and cancer. The authors reported that in 2012, excess body weight was the reason behind 481,000 new cases of cancer – representing 3.6% of all new cancers that year. The association between obesity and cancers was high in developed countries. Colon, uterine and breast cancer accounted for almost two thirds of the cancers. 

The 2012/13 New Zealand Health Survey found that 34% of adults are overweight; a further 31% of adults are obese. In 1997 the figure for obesity was approximately 19%.  

The childhood obesity rate has increased from 8% in 2006/7 to 11% in 2012/13; children from deprived areas are three times more likely to be obese than those from privileged areas. 

Clearly food is a complex issue. The availability of cheap, convenient, processed food is enabling poor nutritional choices that have deleterious consequences. These choices have little to do with the pre-farm gate production system, and nothing to do with sustainability. In fact, obesity is unsustainable. 

Michael Pollan had the answer: Eat food, not too much, mostly plants. 

And take a Christmas toast to the farmers and growers who produced it.