If more energy was expended on improving the nutritional profile of the foods Americans actually want to eat instead of doggedly trying to persuade them to change their eating habits, we would have a greater chance of tackling obesity, according to one leading academic.
Speaking at the IFT annual meeting and food expo in New Orleans, distinguished professor Fergus Clydesdale from the University of Massachusetts said the reluctance of health professionals and government bodies to promote ‘processed’ foods of any kind was a constant source of frustration.
Many canned and frozen vegetables and prepared meals were cheap, convenient, portion-controlled and nutrient-rich, while developments in food technology had enabled firms to produce great-tasting zero calorie beverages and significantly healthier snacks, said Clydesdale.
Focus on what works
However, health professionals continued to insist that the best way to change the nation’s eating habits was to educate consumers about preparing more meals from scratch with fresh fruits and vegetables, he said.
“Well we’ve failed miserably. But [the attitude is] by God if we keep at it, it’s going to work.
“And if you say maybe we should focus on taking the foods that people are actually eating and reduce their caloric density instead, they will throw their hands up in despair and disgust.”
Meanwhile, government advisory panels rarely if ever recommended processed packaged foods, even though they provided an excellent means of “controlling portions, providing low-caloric density, decreasing waste, increasing safety and decreasing preparation time”, he added.
Affluence has made consumers detached from food production
Indeed, the paranoid distrust of ‘chemicals’ and anything ‘artificial’, ‘unnatural’, ‘mass-produced’ or industrially ‘processed’ was actively thwarting efforts to tackle obesity and diverting attention from more substantive issues in nutrition, he claimed.
“Consumers are now frightened to use processed foods in the battle against obesity.”
It was hard to explain why consumers embraced science in other fields such as medicine and technology, but regarded it with suspicion when it came to food, he said. However, rising affluence was a clear factor, as it had driven people to become ever more detached from the realities of food production.
Given that many younger consumers had never seen what spoiled fish, vegetables or meats looked and smelled like, for example, it was hardly surprising that they had no understanding of how these products stayed safe and stable, he added.
Who is to blame for consumers’ distrust of ‘chemicals’ in food?
As to who was to blame for promulgating the myth that food was safer and healthier in the ‘good old days’ and that a return to natural unprocessed food was the solution to the obesity crisis, the food industry itself should accept some responsibility, he acknowledged.
Indeed, consumer perceptions, however ill informed, frequently informed policy at major food companies, which often chose to ban things that did not present a serious risk rather than challenge consumer misconceptions, he said.
“It does nothing to enhance your credibility if you say, well yes, the science says this, but consumers don’t believe it, so we’ll go with the consumer.”
Media reports fail to contextualize risk
But the media was also to blame for failing to contextualize risk for consumers when it came to food contaminants, pesticides, adulterants or novel technologies, said Trevor Butterworth from stats.org, which looks at how statistics are used and abused in the media and public policy.
“When a study comes out and it’s reported in the media, it’s as if each time it is covered, the topic has never been covered before. Journalists don’t provide enough context and they don’t weigh the evidence.”
Butterworth: Hypothetical risk is scarier than quantifiable risk
Where risks were presented, they were rarely quantified in a meaningful way for readers, he added (eg. how many servings of product x would you have to consume before you put yourself at risk?) And significant pieces of information that might help consumers gain perspective were also left out.
For example, recent analysis of US press coverage of Bisphenol A (BPA) – a much-maligned industrial chemical used in plastic bottles and metal cans - over the past five years had revealed that just 6.4% of articles had even mentioned that the European Food Safety Authority believed there were no grounds to revise Tolerable Daily Intakes (TDIs) for BPA, he noted.
“Hypothetical risk is scarier than quantifiable risk and adjectives are better than numbers. Fantasy is more compelling than reality.”