Educating the consumer – Nutritional information only is not enough

Last week a survey was published in the US about whether fast food customers were using nutritional information to make their choice. The result was that although they could read how many calories their meal would include, they did not choose for a healthier lower calorie meal.

Apparently, this was a shocker. It was not to me, and this for a couple of simple reasons. First, people do not go to a fast food restaurant to nibble on a knackebrod. Secondly, information disclosed is never enough to make people change their habits, especially if they have a craving for what they buy. Otherwise, why do some people still smoke when they can read in big letters on the pack that it will kill them?

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

Parents play a crucial role in getting good eating habits

If we want to make people change their eating habits, information is necessary, but by far not sufficient. When it comes to food, we are dealing with many complex issues that have to do with psychology and with taste and a behaviour that we have acquired at a very young and developed as we grow up in the environment that our parents have provided. Further, we all know how skillfully marketing has use these psychological “weaknesses”.

In the US, there is currently quite a debate on health care and obesity is one of the main issues. In many ways, our eating habits are a reflection of our life style and of our society, as I have mentioned in my article “If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?” Therefore, trying to induce a change in our eating habits can only succeed if we make broader changes in the way we live.

Next to information, what consumers need is education. Unless they have an understanding of what the data they get really means, how can we expect them to act upon it?

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

Teaching children about nutrition will help them eat properly

We need to teach children about the basics of nutrition and of metabolism as early as possible, and this education must include their parents, too. There is no big mystery behind what causes obesity, diabetes and other food excesses related ailments. It is quite easy to explain what functions the different food groups fill and how to compose healthy meals, as it is really just a matter of adding up and keeping the right proportions.

It would be highly useful to educate everyone about where food comes from and how it is produced. A program like “Know your food, know your farmer” introduced in the US is useful, but “Know your farming” is just as needed.

What parents also need to understand is that it is their duty to give their children a balanced diet, although it might mean that they, too, should have one, but most importantly, when it comes to decide what is on the table, the children do not dictate what they want simply based on what they like.

Education, though, goes much further than just parents and schools, and retailers, restaurants and the agribusiness need to co-operate more than they currently do, even though some are more active than others in this field. If we want to solve a society problem, the whole society must participate. It is rather interesting to see how the meat industry in the US is reacting to the proposal of a meat-free Monday in school cafeterias. I can understand the resistance to government intervention in telling how people should feed themselves, although when this leads to many health issues, one could argue that if the people cannot make the right choices, maybe someone else should set stricter rules to help them. I also can understand that such a meat-free Monday is a bit threatening to the meat industry, as it means (a tiny little) bit less business in the short-term and maybe quite a bit more if it meant that the next generation might cut on meat consumption. On the other hand, what the meat industry in developed countries needs to realize is that there are plenty of people in other countries who are longing for meat, and these new markets have more than the potential to replace the volumes lost in their domestic markets.

Another great source of information is consumers’ organizations, like the ones I know in Europe. They are independent and they provide many surveys and comparisons on consumer products. They have been very useful in helping consumers gain more awareness about what they consume. Unfortunately, such open and objective information is not directly available in all countries and this is a weakness in the fight for health.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The dining of the future

With the current development of software and technology on the one hand, and all the concerns that consumer express about food, health and environment, on the other hand, I believe that it is only a matter of time before we all can have the information and tools we need to make our own eating (and nutritional) choices.

Can I eat this?

May I eat this?

Today, we have nutritional information on all food items labels, but few of us use it much. This could soon change.
As many among us have computers at home, we can expect software to come on the market, and maybe even already installed with the computer at purchase, that will allow us to determine and set up our own diets.
Already numerous websites have interactive programs telling you, depending on your weight and life style, how many calories you should eat per day and other websites help you calculate the nutritional value of your meal if you enter the quantities of your menu’s components.

In animal nutrition, optimization programs to compose the feed ration by entering the nutritional value of the different possible ingredients and set limits to the level of inclusion of some ingredients based on nutritional and technical parameters have been in use for many years. Last, but not least, these programs also include the price of the different ingredients, so that the best-balanced “meal” that meets the nutritional needs can be composed at the lowest cost possible.

Therefore, it is just a matter of time before we all can have at home a system that will take into account, or weight, our age, our level of physical activity, our health risks and calculate for us what our meals could be made of and how much we should eat, depending on which menu combination we would like to have for that particular meal or day. The nutritional information could be either from a database or directly transferable from the nutritional value label present on the food packaging we bought.

Following the same idea, I expect most restaurants to present their menus with thorough nutritional information on the side, in a similar way as food labels show, with indication of health benefits or restrictions. There also would be the possibility for a customer to enter their personal information to have the meal tailor-made for them, with probably the relevant price adjustment when needed. All of the above includes of course the drinks as well, as they definitely can contribute to the overall nutritional value of the meal.

Any action encouraging healthier eating will be supported by the government and by health insurances, which should help accelerate the introduction of such programs.

As environment and sustainability are among the main concerns of consumers today, I expect food items in the retail and the dishes on restaurant menus to include environmental information, similar to the ones mentioned and appearing on the label shown in my article “Environmental performance on food labels“. Today, a number of restaurants have already joined programs setup by MSC (Marine Stewardship Council) to indicate they serve only sustainable seafood. Seafood is probably just the first item that will be followed with similar information and programs for other food sources.

We have entered the era of information, and we will eat accordingly.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Organic foods not nutritionally superior. So what?

A bit of emotion, a bit of reasonA recent study from the UK concluded that organic foods are not nutritionally superior to “regular” foods. Of course, it did not take long for reactions to be published. The pro organics reject the protocol used and therefore the conclusions. The pro “industry” reacted satisfied. All of this is not surprising, and for a simple reason: people choose their foods greatly based on psychological reasons. Let’s face it the debate around organic food is largely about lifestyle and choices.

However, is the result of this survey a surprise? Not really, because in terms of nutritional value, the differences in production systems are not that different. When it comes to food safety, especially residues of chemicals, then it probably is a very different story.

What can affect the nutritional value of foods are the growth period and the timing of the harvest. Produce that grows fast and that is harvested before full ripeness contains relatively more water and therefore there can be a dilution of nutrients per kg of product. This is also true for meat products.

I do not believe that the real debate between” organic” and “industrial” should be so much about nutritional value as it should be about food safety. As consumers get more educated and have more choice, they will give the preference to something more natural and harmless, simply because it is common sense and the safe thing to do. On the other hand of course, agriculture must be in a position to offer affordable products. Organic foods are more expensive and this is what limits its market share to mostly well-off city residents.

If organic foods want to become the standard to feed people, it will have to work on its production costs and price. Retailers are playing a very important role in this, as they more and more dictate to suppliers how food should be produced. This is currently very obvious with seafood and the requirement set by supermarkets to buy only sustainable seafood.

My expectation for the future is that retailers will get more involved in agriculture and will impose on suppliers more restrictions on what kind of products they may use for crop treatment, more restrictions for better animal welfare. The market standards of the future will become “sustainable”, “natural” and “traceable”; not for emotional reasons, but for rational reasons. There will be pain to accept for producers to meet these requirements, and in the end the commercial negotiations will decide what the market price of “natural” foods will be.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Nutrition basics should be taught in school

When food costs twice!A recent report showed that the annual medical cost of obesity reached $147 billion (see article). On the other hand the contribution of the meat and poultry industry in the US is $832 billion annually. Therefore, we can expect ongoing arguments between economic interest and health care costs for a while. The simple fact is that too many Americans do not eat a properly balanced diet and that should change.

The most efficient way to improve eating habits is by understanding nutrition and educating children at an early age about health and food, and about diseases caused by either unbalance or excess. Food safety is not only about bacteria or residues, but also about handling food properly and eating right.

People know actually very little about proper nutrition. The average person may have some ideas about how many calories he/she needs on a daily basis, but it hardly goes much further than that. Only few people know how many grams of protein they should consume on a daily basis. They know even less how many grams of fat they need. When it comes to carbohydrates, the situation is just as confused and confusing. Most people do not even know how the different groups of carbs (starch, sugars and fibers) are metabolised and what ratio between them they should consume. The result is a diet that has negative long-term effects.

If the FAO estimates the daily calorie needs at 1,800 for an average human being, the averages in developed countries are much higher, reaching about 3,500 on average for Western countries and even 3,800 in the US. The same conclusion is true for protein and other nutritional elements. It should be no surprise then that when people eat twice as much as they should, they get twice as big as they should, too. The reality is that in developed countries, people do not eat what they need, but they eat what they want. And they want too much.

Balanced nutrition is not difficult to understand, but someone needs to teach it. As parents have about as little knowledge and understanding as their kids do, schools would be quite well inspired to put nutrition on their curriculum. After all, schools are the places where future generations are educated to do the right things in the future, or at least it should be part of their mandate. Helping people eating right is part of creating healthy and prosperous societies. Sick societies will not be leaders. Of course, including nutrition in the curriculum is not enough for schools. They must also provide foods and drinks that contribute to healthy eating. Offering kids access to junk foods and junk drinks in vending machines may generate revenue for schools, but it works against helping kids to have a healthy diet. If they have the choice, kids will not spend their lunch money on water and broccoli. The responsible adults in charge must help them make the right choices. Offering treats is not to schools to decide, but only to the parents.

For more on similar topics, please visit my other website The Sensible Gourmet

Copyright 2009 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

The transition from a consumption society towards a maintenance society

The days of our consumption society are numbered. We are going to have to find another economic system to prosper in the future as it is part of solving the climate change and CO2 emission issue. Over the last 60 years, all our economy has been based in encouraging consumer demand for goods that have been produced with relatively very cheap energy, very cheap raw materials and as cheap labour as possible, with as cheap credit as possible. This has lead us where we are, which is a group of very wealthy nations wasting very precious resources, to the point of exhaustion and suffocation. If well maintained, Earth will last longAlthough some still try to resist and deny the obvious, this system is no longer sustainable and we must rethink what should drive our economy. In an earlier article, I made a reference of how previous generations used to be very cautious about what and how they consumed. The positive side of the last 60 years has been the incredible progress we have made in science, knowledge and technology, which offers possibilities unthinkable for the previous generations I was referring to. We understand our world and how it functions like never before. We have all the technological solutions to solve the climate issue, but the key is the will and the determination to change and to act. This cannot happen as long as we keep thinking the economy in terms of growth only. Growth will not go on for ever, simply because our space and our resources are limited. As there are more and more people needing more and more energy, food and other goods, the law of offer and demand will rule. Prices will inevitably go up and consumption will slow down. A new time has come. The priority must now be quality, not quantity, we must think about having enough, not having always more. This thinking is not a nostalgia to a past that also had its limitations. It is not about rejecting a market-based economy. It is about looking at the market that has always been here, but that has been pushed in the background for the easier approach of just producing more and selling it. What we will have to bring to market is not so much products as services. These services are the ones that are directly related to making all the natural and industrial cycles run harmoniously in a durable way. Just to name a few examples, I would mention all activities that are related to cleaning the damage we have caused, and recycling activities will become more and more important in our whole economy. In the same way, water treatment is going to be a crucial activity, even more so than it has been so far. Clean industries producing durable goods and services will prevail. This change will also make some jobs disappear and some appear or even reappear. As usual change always brings opportunities. It is to us to recognize them and to take them. The time has come to make the transition from this consumption society, based on wasting resources, and with no future, to a maintenance society, where wealth, and not growth, will be the economic success indicator. By acting today, we can ensure this process to happen in a smoother way than if we wait until we have no choice anymore.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

If we are what we eat, what will we eat in the future?

The past 50 years have seen, at least in the Western world, the development of the consumption society. The emphasis has been on consuming always more, by having an apparently unlimited quantity of increasingly cheaper consumption goods available. This trend happened in the agriculture and food sectors just as well, and followed a rather simple patter, actually. Mass consumption has been coupled to mass production, thanks to intensification, technical and technological progress and, last but not least, marketing.

Junk foodTechnical progress improved yields and productivity, while marketing was aimed at creating more, and new, needs. Our food has become standardized, industrialized, and processed in a wide variety of forms. As the emphasis moved to lifestyle and convenience, which came along with the rise of mass distribution, cheap energy and suburbia, we lost the connection between ourselves, the origin of our food and nature. Food became just things you buy at the supermarket, already packed in plastic and cardboard.

Now, we have come to the realization that this high production of waste, be it packaging material, be it blemished product that do not look good anymore while still perfectly edible, be it the overproduction of manure and its minerals, or be it the massive use of antibiotics and pesticides is not sustainable. Of course, much progress has already done to reduce this waste and there is a growing trend towards organic and traceable, but at this stage it not clear yet whether this is a true change in our behavior or whether it has more to do with a social status and marketing issue.

However, what the current situation might be, the fact that we understand that we cannot keep on intensifying and wasting the way we did, will inevitably bring a more fundamental change in how we consume in the future.

Some people predict such changes as the astronaut diet made out of pills, the use of a computer to tell us what and how much of it we should eat based on our activity level, or the tissue culture to replace meat, and many other scenarios. Will any of those ever happen? Who knows?

Personally, I believe that food as a very strong psychological connotation. We associate food with experiences and, although there are differences between cultures, that emotional bond will stay.

Clearly, the consumption society with all its excesses is coming to its end, and maybe the current economic crisis, which also originated in the excess of having it all at any cost, could very well be the turning point.

The next evolution is probably going to be a balanced approach between consumption, which we need to some extent, and the necessity of preserving what keeps us alive. There will be different graduations of this balance between geographic regions, but sustainability is the only way forward, as I mentioned in my previous article (Sustainability: as natural as balance).

Intensification is showing its limitations, waste of manure and of packaging are also hitting a wall, energy is getting more expensive and makes the production and the transport of food more expensive, too. This will reshape how we want to consume our food, how and where it is produced, how it is presented to us.

Cattle feedlotWe still are in a society where some people get obese by eating lots of food as quickly as they can, while they have less physical activity than the previous generations, thanks to automation. That food is produced on intensive farms and feedlots where the animals grow and fatten as quickly as possible, as they eat lots of food, while not having much physical activity. Similarly, in our society meat producers use hormones to boost growth and carcass quality, while body builders and sport professionals use steroids and growth hormone to boost their performance. Interesting similarities, don’t you think? We are indeed what we eat.

So, in a conservation society, should we expect the farms to be led by the need to preserve? This almost sounds like the farms we had at the beginning of the twentieth century. I think that there will be some of it, but the efficiency of production as well as the efficiency of preserving the environment will be much better, thanks to new technologies. We will have high yields, and at the same time, we will have highly efficient systems to use water, to recycle waste and preserve the fertility of our soils and the balance of our oceans.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Have we lost touch with Nature?

Our species has shown a tremendous capacity to understand its environment and develop all sorts of tools to thrive on Earth. Without a doubt, this is one of our greatest achievements.
Yet, this success might have brought one major drawback: because we have been able to overcome many of its challenges, we have lost the sense of how much we are connected to Nature.
We tend to take all our achievements over Nature for granted. For example, we can fly (in planes), we can swim underwater (with scuba diving equipment), or eat tomatoes all year round (thanks to greenhouses and artificial lights and climate). We just seem to forget that all of that is the result of tools and techniques that we have developed, but that are fundamentally linked to Nature providing all the components for us.
What worries me the most is that many people in the industrialized world have lost that connection.
It is simply stunning to read reports from polls among the city youth on food. When asked where meat comes from, they answer: from the supermarket. Many kids just do not realize that milk comes from cows, they do not make the connection between eggs and hens, and they do not even want to think that in order to eat meat, you have to kill an animal, which means lots of blood. No, they live in a world where they only want to consume.
Another absolutely stunning example of that disconnection came across to me on the street: a young mother (I realized her status a bit later) was loading stuff in the back of her car, while the car was running, spitting its amount of nasty fumes in her direction. I thought then: gas is too cheap since you let the engine run while doing something else. And then, there it was! When passing by the rear end of the car, I saw the buggy with the infant inside, next to the mother and just opposite to the exhaust pipe, breathing in his full load of toxic gases. Clearly, that woman has no clue of what a combustion engine produces. Just an isolated case, you may think. Well, recently and with the colder mornings, I can witness the army of those early morning windshields scratchers having their engines running, and filling enthusiastically their lungs with the fumes. Then, no wonder that some people smoke, when it says in bold letters on the package that tobacco kills them.
The funny part of all of this is that I live in a neighbourhood where there are more stores selling all sorts of organic stuff than there are butterflies. Yes, people around here are very environmentally conscious, which, by the way, I have never been able to link so far with the huge amount of SUV’s driving around.
These anecdotes just tell me one thing: we have lost touch with Nature, and I believe more and more that we will not wake up until we get punched in the nose really hard. What does not kill us, we have chosen to ignore. I am not too sure if that makes us stronger, though.
So, what to do to get back in touch with, and more importantly have the proper respect for Nature?
In my opinion, it can only come from education. Our curriculum should include a lot more of activities in which kids have to interact with Nature, and be able to physically experience it. Moreover, this should not be happening in school only. The kids and families should get assignments together as part of the education process, because many parents also need to get the basics taught to them as well. Education is the only voluntary way towards changing our lifestyle. And lifestyle is the key here. We are resisting the change because, let’s face it, our lifestyle in the industrialized world is very comfortable.
Rediscovering agriculture, working on farms, harvesting crops, dealing with farm animals, experiencing seasons and natural cycles, going fishing and hunting, learning on how to make bread, presenting in class full reports of their home energy consumption and energy saving tactics, calculating the carbon balance they produce, are just some examples of education topics that could help us reacting to the total lethargy that has been hitting us over the past few decades. We can preserve only what we know, understand and respect. It is all interconnected. If we do not respect Nature, then how can we respect others? It seems fairly obvious that if we just take from the Earth and do not give back (and on time), the “cookie jar” is going to run empty. In the end, nature is all about balance.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.

Eating “Green”: Let’s Get The Facts Right Before We Nosh

Here is an article (http://www.cnbc.com/id/27828087) found on CNBC.com that challenges the claim that eating locally grown food is more environmental. True or false? Controversial? Up to you to decide.

Eating “Green”: Let’s Get The Facts Right Before We Nosh
Posted By:Cliff Mason November 21 2008
Many environmental activists claim that you can do your part to help fight global warming by eating locally grown foods. Sadly, that’s a myth, albeit one that environmentally conscious millennials, eager to reduce their carbon footprints, vigorously cling to.
My generation really cares about climate change, so the least we can do is get the facts right. The whole “eat local” movement is based on the logic that transporting food over longer distances results in greater carbon dioxide emissions. That’s undeniable, but it really doesn’t mean much by itself.
First off, how much more carbon intensive is it to buy food from the next continent over rather than the next county? Not all that much. In a Reason article called “The Food Miles Mistake,” Ronald Bailey lays out some of the facts about carbon emissions caused by the production and transportation of food.
As it turns out, a study done in the United Kingdom found that consumer shopping trips generated 39.38% of food miles, the distance food travels from the farm to your plate. Since the United States is a much more automobile friendly country than Great Britain, I’d imagine that the percentage is even higher here. The same study found that air freight, loathed by local food activists, accounted for less than 1% of food miles.
Think about those numbers. People driving to their local grocery store make up 40 times more food miles than airplanes shipping food from halfway across the world. The carbon emissions from your car when you go to shop for local foods are way more damaging to the environment than the jet fuel that gets burned shipping that food.
So eating local doesn’t really cut down on the aggregate distance food has to travel to get to our dinner table by a significant margin at all. Better to take a bicycle when you go shopping than to buy local.
Eating local can actually do more damage in terms of global warming than eating foreign. Depending on where you live, local foods may generate far more carbon emissions than foods grown far away. Why? Because transportation isn’t everything.
Here’s an interesting fact from Bailey: “In the United States, a 2007 analysis found that transporting food from producers to retailers accounted for only 4 percent of greenhouse emissions related to food.” Where do the rest of the emissions come from? Growing the food, and you driving to the store to pick it up.
Food production is an energy intensive activity. If your local fruits and vegetables were grown in a greenhouse or hydroponically, that uses a whole lot more energy and releases a whole lot more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than growing them out in the sun somewhere tropical. In that case, NOT eating local is the green thing to do.
If you live in a temperate climate and you buy local foods that can be produced with far less energy in a tropical or sub-tropical climate, you’re actually doing your part to make the globe just a wee bit warmer. If you really want to reduce your carbon footprint, don’t buy local, buy tropical.
Questions? Comments? Send them to millennialmoney@cnbc.com