Monday, March 02, 2009

The Price of Food

It's a pleasant surprise to find an article on the Stuff website on a real and topical issue with readers' comments that intelligently challenge and add to the original content, rather than descending into an inane mess of partisan bickering and name calling (such dignified interactions are relatively common on independent blogs but mainstream sites tend to be the electronic version of talkback radio).

The article from the Sunday Star Times is headlined 'Kiwis hooked on unhealthy food'. Working hard to strike a sensational tone, it reports 'confidential data leaked to the [newspaper]' showing that soft drink and snack foods dominate the list of 40 top-selling products in New Zealand supermarkets. There are three 1.5-litre soft drinks in the top 10, and a bottle of Coke is right at head of the list.

The article quotes a nutritionist and (of course) Sue Kedgley expressing their concern at the poor quality of New Zealanders' diet and blaming it on the 'sophisticated marketing techniques' of advertisers.

A flood of comments ensued (87 at the time of writing). Pleasingly, many people pointed out the obvious fact that by only counting standardised packaged items and excluding fresh fruit and vegetables, the survey was biased.

I'd also point out that the mere fact that the suvey was in a supermarket makes the results relatively predictable. Aside from fruit and vegetables, dried goods like beans and nuts will probably not have been counted. In addition, meat, soups, wholegrain breads, cereals are sold in varying brands, styles and quantities. Almost by definition, more interesting and healthier foods are not going to move large numbers of units -- and many of them are sold in smaller more specialised stores.

Expressing concern at the generally low nutritional levels of food people buy in supermarkets is a little like being disappointed to find that people in bars are mostly drinking alcohol.

However, a more important point made by people in the comments section was that healthy and nutritious food is not cheap. The biggest-selling items are the ones that are often on special in bulk, and invariably are the ones with poor nutritional value, full of sugar and fluff. Meanwhile, the 'healthy alternatives' cost two or three times as much. A number of people critiqued the hectoring tone of comfotably middle-class nutritionists and politicians who worry about obesity but have little appreciation of the average working person's struggle to get by on a meagre budget.

Others still argued that eating well is perfectly possible with a bit of commonsense and imagination, and that 'Coke is cheaper than milk' is no argument when tap water is free (I concur with this last point).

The debate is continued here, following a piece where a columnist recounts her attempt to spend a week eating 'frugally'.

I've commented before on the cost of nutritious food and the difficulty in eating well, and I mused about whether rich countries are actually richer in this respect. There's no doubt that something is not quite right about what and how many of us eat.

In a future post or two, I might try to unpick some of the reasons for this. In the meantime, I know some regular readers have opinions and theories on this topic, which they're welcome to post here.

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