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supermarkets, food, health « Previous | |Next »
November 3, 2009

Jon Wardle and Michael Baranovic conclude their article in the latest issue of The Brisbane Line by saying that:

Health problems are no longer being caused by lack of access to food but rather by lack of access to foods that provide the most health benefit. We need to look at food provision in a more integrated manner that extends beyond just price. Until the issue of a competitive fresh food retail sector is seen as a public health priority, the significant and entirely preventable impact of poor nutrition on health will remain a millstone on Australia’s health policy.

Most of their article is about the lack of competition in the fresh food retail and grocery sector due to the dominance of the Woolworths/Coles duopoly in Australia and how to ensure healthier competitive practices.

What is assumed is that the food industry causes health problems, that a preventative health policy ensures an equitable access to healthy, nutritious food, and that there is a literacy amongst consumers about the importance of healthy food for their wellbeing.

What is not mentioned by Wardle and Baranovic is that in spite of the claim of selling fresh food the supermarket shelves are full of foods full of sugars, fats, refined starches, artificial sweeteners, preservatives, colours, flavours and other additives. As Rosemary Stanton observes in Crikey:

The vast array of foods ensures we over-eat. The average supermarket now stocks 1800 different snack food lines, more than 150 breakfast cereals (some more accurately described as confectionery), and an absurd choice of junk in aisles stocked with packet soups, sauces, biscuits and sugary drinks. Does it really make us happier or healthier to have 45 varieties of milk or hundreds of choices of yoghurt?.. there is an urgent need to reduce the national girth. The most popular call is for more physical activity. No one would argue with that. But we also need to find a way to encourage people to eat less.

And to encourage people to eat differently--to eat more fresh food rather than the junk foods that are high in saturated fat and sugar. Stanton adds that:
The usual cry of “they should be educated” doesn’t work in the face of so much abundance and strong marketing campaigns to get us to eat more. Food industry profits depend on us eating more. The food industry’s solution of more choice increases profits, but does nothing for obesity.

I am sure that the food and drinks industry will both actively lobby against the recommendations of the Preventative Health Taskforce that will impact of their profits; and reposition themselves as the true friends of public health and market themselves as selling healthy products.

No sales tax on sugary soft drinks and fatty foods would be one example that would not go down well the food industry. They would resist this for sure.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 3:20 AM | | Comments (21)


The problem of taxing particular food types is that it can disadvantage people with a legitimate need for such foods.

Epileptics, for example, particular if they cannot deal with the nasty side-effects of anticonvulsants, sometimes have to resort to a ketogenic diet (very high fat while low sugar) which can give net health benefit despite the near-certainty of cardiovascular disease.

Type-1 diabetics are sometimes in critical need of something high in sugar.

There are other examples, but this does indicate some of the problems of taxes, or organizing rebates (especially for those sick enough to be on disability pensions where a rebate would be useless).

Much more useful, I think, would be a stick/carrot based on the outcomes on a case-by-case basis. Funding an annual checkup with a doctor testing for problems, (a height/weight/skinfold/bloodpressure check needs no fancy instruments and gives useful data) immediately causes correct advice (even just leaflets) to be given - which helps.

Hell, a small rebate/reward for being in the healthy range might even be useful - underweight or overweight, no benefit.

Taxes on "bad" food might simply make governments "bad food addicts", just as governments are addicted to smoking and gambling.

that proposal is much better than a tax. I presume the idea of a tax on junk food is based on the success of the smoking tax on cigarettes.

If one is intelligent enough to work out that eating fresh fruit,vegies and meats costs less that filling your shopping trolley with crap then one would benefit from savings and nutritious meals.
Unfortunately society today is hell bent on convenience and tends to buy things that produce a quick fix of food. I blame the TV mob and the fresh food sellers for not meeting the market and putting fresh fruit out there "well" as a great fast food fix.

there are farmers markets that sell quality fresh food directly to people. They are very popular in the Fleurieu Peninsula, south of Adelaide. Is that the same for the Gold Coast?

Yes there is plenty of fresh food available everywhere in Oz.
My point is that people need to be educated to know that a fruit bar with a picture of a piece of fruit on it is not as good as a piece of fruit.

"a fruit bar with a picture of a piece of fruit on it is not as good as a piece of fruit."

One of my favourite bug bears. Fruit bars, muesli bars, those snack buckets of fruit bits or fruit puree, snack buckets of yoghurt, those apricot chew things and just about anything that calls itself a health bar. They're all a thousand percent sugar and food colouring, or fruit processed to the point where there's a few fruit molecules tucked around the fructose.

Parents honestly believe they're as good as the real thing. But who's going to make a serious tilt at honesty in packaging? The government that calls the ETS a carbon pollution reduction scheme? Those masters of misleading packaging in Canberra?

there is a relevant post to Lyn's comments about fruit bars + muesli bars, by David Gillespie on Crikey about Big Sugar making products that will cause heart disease and which are marketed by the food industry as a healthy alternative to fruit.

we do have a problem when nearly half of all Australian adults and close to three in every 10 Australian children are overweight or obese. It is a mess, especially when the food industry has been contributing to the obesity problem and it has been white-anting the solutions.

What have the embedded nutritionist or the industry-funded scientist achieved by way of change?

It is fortunate that we have Breakfast Clubs in schools here so kids can get a healthy start if they arent getting it at home.

Agreed. Breakfast Clubs are a brilliant idea. Kids get a decent breakfast, and it also encourages higher attendance. They're also popular for social reasons.

Imagine if we had breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea clubs?

Another problem with kids going to school is that there is a brisk trade of foods between the kids with high sugar bars and things being highly sort after. What goes to school in the lunch box isn't necessarily what the kid eats. Schools have done some hard work and taken the worst types of foods off the canteen menus but haven't done much about the trading.

The underlying assumption is that its cheaper for a family to eat home prepared meals of fresh vegetables and produce.
What about the growing portion of single person households? It takes a disciplined shopper and cook to prepare an interesting, nutritious meal for one more cheaply than buying frozen meals or takeaway. Increasingly family members microwave a Lean Cuisine before they dart out to their evening activity.

The supermarkets prefer to fill their shelves with junk food because it has a longer shelf life thus reducing the stores wastage. Wastage in fresh food runs at 20% which is very high for a low margin industry.
The food industry not only creates demand for its products but is very quick to exploit changing demographics.

Yes its hard to get interested in cooking for one. I can remember what that was like. A good deterrent from those lean cuisine things is to empty them out of the box and weigh just the food. You will be surprised to learn what price per kilo of food it works out to be.

Yes you are right about the wastage but this is factored into the big picture. The supermarkets work on the theory that they need to carry everything so you wont go elsewhere.

It's also next to impossible to buy quantities for one. Supermarkets tend to package for families.

Actually foods packaged in single serves are on the shelves, think snack packs, a single serve is often smaller than I tend to pile onto my plate.

Snack packs are stewed fruit which might be OK for dessert but its not got the nutrition of fresh fruit.

Fresh fruit - how much nutrition is left in a Montague apple that has spent 12 - 24 months in cold store before hitting the supermarket shelves in Coles?

What about the size of fruit, the apples sold in supermarket are equivalent to 2 serves of fruit.

I noticed that Hot Cross Buns had doubled in size over the past 30 years.

Most people don't realise that we shouldn't eat more at a meal than our 2 clenched fists. Good thing I have big hands.

I work on the theory of "Never eat anything bigger than your head"

Christ! Are hot cross buns on the shelves already?

The argument is that informed consumers can shop for healthy food in supermarkets. But often, despite lots of choice (eg.,breakfast cereals), there is little choice. There is choice over which candy bar to have for breakfast, as these cereals are so high in sugar and lacking in nutrients. Iron man food they most definitely are not.

The breakfast cereals are made from highly processed grains. You might start off with a nice healthy whole grain but by the time you’ve puffed it or turned it into a nice crunchy flake, you’re left with something your body no longer recognises as food. The puffed up flakes are devoid of nutrients, and not much more than empty calories.

Retailers have a gatekeeper role in the provision of nutrition to the public through their ability to control access to supermarket shelves.

The supermarket shelves are stacked with these alluring alternatives promising reduced fat, fewer calories and helpful nutrients. The packaging and labelling is misleading, especially when some 'healthy' ready meals are high in salt - sometimes higher than the standard version. Low-fat desserts can be full of sugar.

There is not much push to stop this kind of deception or to force the processed food industry to back its health claims with evidence. Is Rudd + co exploring approaches to regulating foodadvertising and marketing particularly with regard to children?

I presume that we haven't reached the stage yet, where the majority of children attending public schools are exposed to advertising and other marketing activities while in school ( ie advertising on school grounds or school buses). Or where the bulk of these marketing efforts are financed by companies that sell foods of minimal nutritional value or foods high in fat, sugar or salt.

the increased calories in Australian diets come from eating more food in general, but especially from eating more of foods high in fat (meat, dairy, fried foods, grain dishes with added fat), sugar (soft drinks, juice drinks, desserts), and salt (snack foods).

This is an indication that many Australians now eat a poorly balanced diet.

There is a big disparity between the advertising of foods of minimal nutritional value and the advertising of five or more servings of vegetables and fruit per day.The type of former advertising by the food, beverage, and fast-food industries for excessive marketing of foods with little or no nutritional value is what the advertising world calls “surround marketing”. This is designed to capture consumer attention at every possible moment.

the politics of food in Australia is all about keeping prices low and food more or less off the national political agenda.

maybe that will change because the modern Australian diet looks to cause a public-health catastrophe---one of the that public health care has gotten so expensive is the cost to the system of preventable chronic diseases.