Perhaps the ultimate challenge

July 1, 2017

There certainly is no lack of challenges on the path to feeding a growing world population, but a successful future does not just stop with food volumes. Beyond quantity, it is necessary to ensure that people eat balanced diets. Of course, this is true for those who are food insecure and need help to be able to access more food, but it just as true for the overweight and the obese. The health cost to society is high and is so the cost to the environment. Although excess calories end up as body fat and not in landfills, overweight and obesity should be looked at as food waste nonetheless. After all, body fat is food that has been produced but not consumed for any useful purpose. The problem is only getting bigger as rates of obesity are increasing among the population of emerging countries and are reaching alarming levels. It is not a Western countries’ problem anymore. It is a global one. There is no one particular cause to explain this trend, but it is a combination of lifestyle, example at home and education about the basics of nutrition. We are what we eat and we eat what we are. Diets are undoubtedly a reflection of society and its values.

One of the drivers of today’s economies is growth and too often this concept is restricted to quantitative growth. We must be honest and recognize that our food and agriculture systems still are greatly production driven. Although the idea of a market-driven approach is widely spread, the practice seems to differ, and it looks like it is only translated in marketing-driven instead, always with an underlying production-driven thinking. About all food sector and companies always look for ways to sell more volume. There is competition within any particular industry, but also between industries. For example, in the animal protein sector, poultry, pork, beef and fish are always trying to get a higher stomach share at the expense of one another. Usually, the main decision factor for consumer to make their purchase is the relative price of one type of protein versus the others.

The main message that consumers receive every day is: eat more of this or more of that. Then, it is only normal that they do just that. Why expect any other behaviour? The result is a value system of always more, without really thinking about how it all adds up, while it should be about always enough. Overconsumption leads to waste and to unbalanced diets. Waste is the number one enemy of sustainability, and educating the public about proper diet is actually an important weapon in fighting waste, but it is a difficult one. Although good habits are generally not any more difficult to adopt than bad habits, it seems that the latter group is more attractive. Changing eating habits is all about education. It starts at home and in school. Actually, it is rather easy to learn about the proper ratios between protein, fats and carbohydrates –both fast and slow ones- that are needed in a balanced diet. Information is everywhere, but unfortunately, the lack of education and therefore knowledge about nutrition results in many consumers having no idea how to read labels and how to compose proper meals. If our lifestyles and our needs have undergone major changes over the past five or six decades, physiology of digestion and nutritional metabolism have not changed much at all over the tens of thousands of years that humans have been roaming the planet. It would seem obvious that such an essential element of life should be common knowledge, but it is not. An interesting experiment is to ask people at random what the nutritional needs of an average human being are. Usually, people have an idea about how many calories a person should eat on a daily basis. When it comes to how many grams of protein and even more so fat, then the faces tend to turn blank. Another even more interesting experiment is to ask the same question to people working in food and agriculture. Just go ask how many calories, how many grams of protein and fat. It is an eye opener.

It is possible to make consumer behaviour change from harmful to healthy. There are lessons to be learned from the example of tobacco. To change, consumers need the proper incentives, but the bottom line is that people change only if they perceive the change to be an improvement. Since eating habits rest on powerful psychological triggers, the difficulty is in finding the right triggers and creating a perception of reward. Food producers have a critical role to play in this transformation, and it has to be a collective and collaborative effort with all other stakeholders as well.

Copyright 2017 – Christophe Pelletier – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Consumers shape food production systems

October 21, 2010

Although it is tempting to think that food production systems are created by agribusiness, they depend greatly on the choices and the attitude of consumers and society. For humans, food is not just about nutrition, but it is loaded with a high emotional content.

Consumer choices are highly irrational. To demonstrate this, here are some examples.

When the mad cow disease, or BSE, hit the UK in 1996, beef consumption dropped, but the behavior of consumers was odd. A leading retailer put British beef on sale at 50% off the normal price. They had their best weekend sales ever by then. When asked why they had bought beef, while there were concerns about health risks, some consumers gave answers such as “At that price it is worth taking the risk” or, even better, “ I will freeze it and eat it once the mad cow crisis is over”! At the same time, customers’ visits to the leading fast food chain drop sharply and beef burgers were not in demand, although their beef was from the Netherlands, a country free of BSE by then.

In Europe, mostly in France, consumers used to demand veal to be white. Not slightly pink, just plain white. To achieve this, calves were fed a milk powder diet, which kept them anemic. Yet, at some point, consumers denounced this technique as being against proper treatment of animals. The demand of white meat with a normal diet could not be reconciled. It took years before consumers finally understood that veal was supposed to be pink.

For most customers, white eggs are perceived as being from intensive cage production, while brown eggs are perceived as being more “natural”. Everyone with knowledge of the industry knows that the color of the shell has nothing to do with the nutritional quality of the egg. The belief that the egg color indicates a difference persists, though.

Some blind tests carried out between “industrial” and free-range chicken meat carried out in the Netherlands in the 1980s showed interesting results. When consumers were not told which was which, they could not clearly taste a difference, while when they knew which meat was from which production system, they overwhelmingly gave the preference to the free-range chicken.

Here, in Vancouver, there is a strong trend towards organic foods produced locally. Farmers markets flourish and the environmentally conscious consumers choose to buy their “natural” food on these markets. Ironically, many of them drive in their gas-guzzling SUVs to go there. So much for caring for the environment.

Who, with a rational mind, would choose to eat junk? Yet, junk food is quite a popular item in North America, and it has been a growing trend in many European and emerging countries as well.

In the case of tobacco, not a food, but an agricultural product nonetheless, the warning on the package is quite clear. Yet, some people decide to smoke.

The list could continue and I am sure that everyone has more examples of irrational behavior. Consumer demand (both the rational kind as the irrational one) determines what farmers and food companies produce and sell. In this regard, consumers also share a responsibility in what is produced, how it is produced, where it is produced and how it is distributed to them. Blaming retail or the agribusiness alone for the kind food systems that are in place is unfair.

Of course, it would be interesting to imagine what people would eat if they were rational, and what impact on our food production this would have. A rational diet would follow proper nutritional recommendation, and to this extent would follow the same principles as those used in animal nutrition. However, this would not have to be as boring a diet as what animals are fed. A rational diet does not need to be a ration. After, the human genius that is cooking would help prepare delicious rational meals. It would be like having the best of both worlds. The emotional, social and hedonistic functions of food would remain. The key would be about balance and moderation. If people were eating rationally, there would not be any diet-related illnesses. There would not be obesity. There also would be a lot less food waste. This would improve the level of sustainability of agriculture.

Will consumers become more rational in the future? I do not think so, but I believe that they will become better informed and more critical over time. Especially with the rise of social media, information circulates much faster and trends can gather momentum faster than in the past. More programs for healthier eating are currently running and action is taking place at many levels. In particular, schools are a place where much can be achieved. One can wonder how long the “lunch money and self-service system” will last. Having schools placing vending machines selling items that are highly unbalanced foods and leaving the decision over to kids to decide what they want to eat was of course a disaster waiting to happen. I cannot believe that anyone would expect kids to consciously making the choice of spending their lunch money on broccoli and mineral water. Kids will choose what they like best, not what is best for their health. They need adults for guidance.

Attitude towards food is changing all over the world. Currently, I can see two major trends growing. One is taking place in North America and the other is happening in emerging countries.

In North America, consumers are waking up and starting to question the way their food is produced. This is a major change compared with their attitude until a few years ago. When I moved to this part of the world in 1999, I was amazed by how easy consumers, and retailers, were for the food industry. Consumers simply seemed to consume without trying to know about production methods. Hormones, antibiotics or GMOs (genetically modified organisms) seemed to be accepted. This was a sharp contrast with what I had known in Europe, where all of the above was meeting strong resistance from consumers and retailers. What I currently see happening currently in North America reminds me strongly of what I had seen happen in Europe 20 to 30 years ago. The similarities are almost disturbing. Consumers are losing trust in government agencies, and retailers seem to be the ones to champion food quality, traceability and production methods. This will have much more profound consequences in the way food is produced in the USA and in Canada than the agribusiness seem to realize, or is willing to admit. The population is aging, the generations are changing and the values about food are shifting. The current opposition is not a short-term fad. Consumers will make different choices. Some food producers see that and are already adapting, but many producers still seem to think that opposition will pass. I believe that they are in for a surprise. The expressed plan of Wal-Mart to buy more from small and mid-size farms, to reduce waste, and to develop sustainable sources of agricultural products is a very clear signal that business is changing!

In emerging countries, consumers are changing their eating habits, too, but for a different reason. They now have better wages and more disposable income. The previous “”subsistence” diet made of mostly grain, such as rice, wheat or corn, are now including more animal protein, as well as fruit and vegetables. In these countries, consumers are not overly critical of their food production and distribution systems, but issues that arose in developed countries affect the way food is produced, especially in the area of food safety. These consumers probably would like to experience the same level of food security and affordability of food as in the West over the past 5 decades, but the growing population, and the financial markets will temper this trend. Food prices will be firm at best and they are more likely to increase in the future on an ongoing basis.

There is no doubt in my mind that consumers and retailers are increasingly going to put the emphasis on sustainability, health, food safety and transparency. This may sometimes lead to conflicting objectives with the need to produce more food globally. This does not need to be a problem, but this is why the world needs strong leaders to show the way towards meeting both the objectives of better food and of more food.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Some basics about nutrition and metabolism that can improve your life

August 12, 2010

With obesity on the rise in more and more countries and legions of diets with little results, if any, I had been thinking about writing something about proper nutrition and some of the key physiological mechanisms involved in human metabolism. It is a bit away from envisioning the future, although the fight against obesity will gain momentum in the years to come.

There are many misconceptions out there. For instance, we all have heard that carbohydrates are not good, fat is not good or meat is not good. This is total non-sense. Carbohydrates, fat and protein are good. Actually, they are indispensable to our health. What is bad is too much, especially too much of the nutritionally poor quality carbohydrates, fats and protein sources.

Obesity and overweight are increasing health issues. In the world there are about as many overweight people as they are people suffering from hunger: around one billion people in each group. What causes overweight? The answer is simple. A person gains weight when he/she ingests more calories than he/she burns. The cause can be either too rich a diet and/or not enough physical activity. In most cases, it is a combination of both. The source of unburned calories are metabolized into fat and stored in the fat tissues. This is a problem, because fat tissues are poorly irrigated with blood vessels. This makes the stored fat difficult to eliminate. The body will use calories coming from the meals before it uses the fat reserves. This is why it is so difficult to get rid of extra pounds. The only way to use the fat reserves is through long intensive physical activity.

Some might wonder why our body does not tell us when to stop eating. Actually the body does, through two physiological mechanisms. One is a mechanical mechanism. When the stomach is stretched, the nervous system sends the information to the brain that the stomach is full and the brain makes us stop eating. The other mechanism is biochemical, through the blood composition, the brain sensors can detect when we have ingested enough energy, and the brain makes us stop eating. We feel “full”.

This could make you think that we should never overeat because the brain would let us know on time. Theoretically, this is true but the modern lifestyle has found a way of deceiving the brain. The biochemical mechanism takes time to react. It needs to detect a glycaemia level high enough to act. When we eat food and beverages that are highly concentrated in energy, and therefore have a relatively small volume, we ingest more calories than we would need before the stomach gets stretched, and before the glycaemia level rises in the blood to the normal level. Such foods are generally low in fibre and high in fat, such as fried foods. Soft drinks are not filling and they contain many calories. You can imagine the result of a combo bacon cheeseburger-French fries-pop package meal! The carbohydrates that they contain pass in the blood almost instantaneously. One of the advantages of fibre-rich food, such as fruit and vegetables, is that they fill the stomach and contain relatively few calories per volume unit. This activates the mechanical nervous mechanism and limits our food intake much faster than foods with little fibre. Do not fool yourself! The little leaf of lettuce in your burger is not enough to protect you.

This brings me to talk about carbohydrates. There are two types of carbohydrates: the slow ones and the fast ones. The main representative of slow carbohydrate is starch. Starch is a long molecule that does not get into the blood stream as such. When we consume starch in bread, rice, pasta or potatoes, the starch gets cuts in a smaller component, called glycogen. The glycogen is stored in the liver where it waits for instructions from the brain to be released in the blood stream. This happens through a biochemical mechanism. The brain sensors detect a state of hypoglycaemia, and it orders the liver to release the glycogen. As long as our liver still has glycogen in store, we do not feel hungry. The system regulates itself smoothly. When we run out of glycogen, which is between 2 and 4 hours after the meal, we get into a hypoglycaemic state and we feel hungry. Usually it happens around 11.00 am and noon. That is why lunch exists! Same thing happens around 5.00 pm. Starch is good and necessary for us (as mentioned before, too much, on the other hand, is not).

The second group of carbohydrates, the fast ones, follows a different process. This group consists of what we call sugars, such as saccharose, fructose or glucose. When ingested, they do not get stored for later release, unlike starch. They flow into the bloodstream almost instantaneously and there are two possible scenarios. If our activity level is high enough when we consume them, they are burned to provide us with energy. If our activity level is too low for the amount we consume, our metabolism deals with the fast carbohydrates in only one manner: it transforms the sugars into fat that then get stored in the fat tissue. This is why drinking large amounts of pop or snacking on candy bars while sitting on your couch watching TV or playing video games will make you fat. There again, the rule is enough sugar to sustain yourself is good, too much consumption is bad.

About fat, I can tell a similar story. Within the amount necessary to allow all our functions to work properly, fats are fine. As their name indicates, essential fatty acids are indispensable. Even the dreaded cholesterol is an essential element for us. What is not good is to consume too much fat, and to consume too much of the less good ones. The length of the carbon chain, the level of saturation and the configuration of the molecules also affect your health. The excess of fat in your diet will end up as fat deposit in your body. This is why potato chips while watching TV will hurt you, too.

Protein is good, but with moderation as well. As for the other elements, too much protein can cause some problems, as protein stored in the intestine before release will not ferment, unlike fibre, but will undergo a rotting process, resulting in the production of harmful amines. The kidneys have also more work to do, and a long exposure to a diet too rich in protein may cause kidney problems.

So, what is the lesson from all of this? For me, it is that food one of the enjoyable things in life, as long as it is consumed with moderation (an incidental excess once in a while is fine, too; it means that you enjoy life) and it goes together with a healthy lifestyle. A person should have 7 hours of physical activity (the kind that makes you sweat) per week. Also, remember that the best is to not gain extra pounds in the first place, because the fat tissue is remarkably persistent.

Copyright 2010 – The Happy Future Group Consuting Ltd.


The ingredients of the Mediterranean diet nutritionists never talk about

October 16, 2009
Is the good lifestyle under threat?

Is the good lifestyle under threat?

In the world of the many diets, the Mediterranean one has a special place. Although, the people of these countries have extensive meals, they never seem to get fat, and that is a great puzzle to the obesity-plagued America.

The specialists will tell you it is the garlic, and the olive oil, and the wine, etc… that all contain substances that help your metabolism and your health. And you know what? It is true. They all have very positive qualities, but there is so much more to explain why Mediterranean people do not get obese.

They have long and extensive but properly sized meals
With a meal that starts with a soup or a salad, you already start to fill your stomach with relatively low calorie food, so there is less room left for the higher calorie food. Our brain has two ways of getting the message that we have eaten enough. The mechanical message is a simple nervous transmission to the brain from the stomach, when this one is extended because of food intake. It is as if the stomach says: “I am full, stop sending food!” The second way is a biochemical one sending a message through blood content and pH that says: “there is enough fuel in the tank, you can stop now!”
The mechanical message is rather instantaneous, while the biochemical one has a lag. This is why the appetizer is so useful. If you start with a dish that is highly concentrated in calories, you will pass the amount of calories that you need before your stomach can say to the brain that it is full, and the excess calories will be stored in fat.
A three-course menu means that the portion of every course is smaller, and that contributes to less calorie intake. Who has a 9-oz (270 g) steak for dinner, except in North America?

When you have big meals, you do not snack
The other advantage of extensive meals is that you have enough calorie intake for another four hours, which in Mediterranean society is the time of the next meal. Therefore, they do not snack between meals. When you graze on snacks all day long, which by the way are all loaded with sugar and/or fat, you end up eating more calories than you would with two large better-balanced structured meals.
Snacking on a bag of chips or salted nuts or scooping from a bucket of ice cream while watching TV is not common in those countries.

They may drink wine, but they do not drink pop
Do not think that Mediterranean people drink wine like it is a medicine, but their consumption of soft drinks is much lower than it is in North America. They also tend to drink more water as part of the meal. This in terms of calories makes a quite a difference, too. My story of the mechanical and biochemical messages applies for this superbly; there is no mechanical message, and by the time the blood tells the brain, the subject will have drunk more than a pint (~ ½ litre) of a drink containing 10% of sugar. That is about three tablespoons of raw sugar. Try to eat that up straight!

The weather is warm and sunny
That is another difference with more northern countries. When the weather is warm, you eat less, because your body needs fewer calories for maintaining its temperature.
Moreover, in nice climates, people tend to drink more water and spend more time walking or riding their bikes, instead of driving around.

They cook their own meals
Another component of many Mediterranean countries is the fact that people tend to like cooking much more, probably because of much more diverse and fragrant possibilities that their cultures have developed. Further, eating in Mediterranean countries is much more a social happening than in Northern countries, and you do not serve guests with a frozen meal!
The advantage of cooking your own meal, next to the fact that it is cheaper, ids that you have the possibility of choosing the ingredients and you can decide yourself of how much you put in the recipe. This way, you can manage much better, the origin, the quality and the quantity of your calories.
When you buy ready meals, very often you do not have as much flexibility. Although the food industry has developed low sodium and low calorie meals, it has been quite good at using relatively high levels of salt, sugar and fat, because they are cheap ingredients.

Is everything fine under the sun, then?
Unfortunately, over the last decade, changes in lifestyle and especially the popularity of fast food with the younger generation is changing the picture somehow. The rate of obesity is increasing there, too. Maybe Mediterranean people will have to rediscover their own diet sometime in the future.

Copyright 2009 The Happy Future Group Consulting Ltd.


Educating the consumer – Nutritional information only is not enough

October 15, 2009

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.