The humbug of food elitism

Lately there’s been a proliferation of media articles encouraging people to avoid foods with additives. 

It’s a sentiment propelled by the Green Party and gourmet foodies, and recent interest has certainly been peaked by Michael Pollan’s book In defence of food. I call it the “let’s all shop at farmers’ markets, eat slow food and sit in the sunshine” movement. It’s a concept we’d all love to follow – were it not for our real lives getting in the way.

The philosophies of the idealists are encapsulated by phrases like “only buy foods from around the ‘outside’ of the supermarket”, “the best food you can buy is something that will go off in 3 or 4 days’ time” and “I don’t buy anything in a packet”.

In my view this approach misses a few important points.

Firstly, I visited my local supermarket yesterday with a critical eye.  Around the favoured “outside” were fresh fruit and vegetables, the supermarket bakery (featuring biscuits, cakes, pastries and predominantly white bread), the deli (stocked with deep fried foods, pies, expensive cheeses and imported small goods), fresh meat, fish and chicken, more small goods, milk, spreads, juice, yoghurt, ice cream, frozen desserts, other cheeses and pre-prepared chilled and frozen foods.  The check-outs (also on the “outside”) predominantly featured confectionery.

Let’s look at the supermarket layout in light of the National Heart Foundation’s nine steps to a healthy heart (shown in italics below).  Here’s what we find:

Enjoy three meals a day, selecting from dishes that encourage you to eat plant foods and fish, with little or no dairy fat, meat fat or deep fried foods. All of these items (the good and the not so good) are found on the “outside” of the supermarket. 

Choose fruits and/or vegetables at every meal and most snacks. Frozen and canned plant foods – equivalent in nutritional value to most fresh produce – are found in “inside” aisles.  As are predominantly vegetable meals such as soups and pulses.

Select whole grains, whole grain breads, or high fibre breakfast cereals in place of white bread and low fibre varieties at most meals and snacks. The supermarket bakery I visited offered only one wholegrain bread type, while the “inside” aisle supplying ‘packaged’ bread was predominantly wholegrain, as was the breakfast cereals aisle.  The brown rice and wholegrain pasta and flour all perched in “inside” aisles.

Include fish, or dried peas, beans and soy products, or a small serving of lean meat or skinned poultry, at one or two meals each day. Fresh fish, lean meat and skinned poultry are on the “outside”, but canned fish (higher in omega-3 oils) is in an “inside” aisle, along with the dried pulses and soy products.

Choose low fat milk, low fat milk products, soy or legume products every day.  All varieties of milk products – low fat and regular – are on the outside.

Use small amounts of oil, margarine, nuts or seeds.  Margarine is on the outside, but you need to venture into an “inside” aisle for oils, nuts and seeds.

Drink plenty of fluids each day, particularly water, and limit sugar-sweetened drinks and alcohol.  All “inside” aisle products.

Use only small amounts of total fats and oils, sugar and salt when cooking and preparing meals, snacks, or drinks. Choose ready-prepared foods low in these ingredients. Ready prepared foods low in salt, sugar and fat are dotted all over the supermarket – predominantly in those supposedly bad “inside” aisles.  And there are plenty of ready prepared foods with less than ideal salt, sugar and fat levels lurking in the outside areas.

Mostly avoid or rarely include butter, deep fried and fatty foods, and only occasionally choose sweet bakery products.  All languishing temptingly in the supposedly sacred “outside” border of the supermarket.

In fact – on analysis, the “inside” shelves consisted of:
- 40% non-food items
- 25% pasta, rice, canned vegetables, canned fish, oils, vinegars, flours, sugars,
herbs and spices and frozen vegetables (all containing no additives)
- 10% frozen prepared foods, breads and cereals (limited additives used)
- 10% wine and beer (limited additives used)
- 5% biscuits and confectionery (varying amounts of additives used)
- 5% savoury snacks and pre-prepared meals (varying amounts of additives)
- 5% non-alcoholic beverages (half of which is bottled water and the rest contains
limited additives)

So you can see how well-meaning messages like “only shop from the ‘outside’ of the supermarket”, combined with “avoid food additives” actually conflict with other health and nutrition messages and serve to completely confuse the average shopper.

Secondly, I don’t profess to be a food technologist, but I have a reasonable understanding of food additives, their purpose and safety.  Additives are there for a purpose: to keep food safe.  So the anti-additives message needs to be tempered.  Today many of the traditional additives used to preserve food (salt, sugar and fat), have been reduced or removed, and sometimes replaced with safe and approved alternatives to ensure foods remain edible.

Everyone’s an expert in food.  I personally count farmers’ markets and my husband’s home made rye sourdough as some of the best things in life.  But I don’t profess to eating only these types of foods because I have a busy life and frankly can’t afford it.  I also think it’s potentially misleading to convey these messages to shoppers, who are already confused enough. Surely we should encourage shoppers to buy food from the supermarket (including the “inside” part), enabling them to prepare a healthy and balanced meal at home, rather than scaring them away to their local takeaway food outlet?

Categories: Food Industry, Nutrition and Health