Healthy food and authenticity

By Richard Smith

BDRC has recently been involved in a project with some of our global partners to explore the meaning of healthy eating. This consisted of bulletin board research (online qualitative) over a three day period in nine countries around the world.

National stereotypes are always fascinating and there are some interesting little vignettes within the report:

  • In Turkey, eggs are regarded as healthy, whereas in neighbouring Greece half of our participants felt they were unhealthy. Incidentally, Turkey has the highest rate of obesity in Europe (tying for first place with Andorra)
  • In most countries, nuts are considered a very healthy food, but Russia is an exception where only 1 in 10 participants felt nuts were healthy
  • (…In shocking news….) Germans least likely to consider cakes and pastries unhealthy!  Perhaps the portly British (no.3 in the European obesity stakes) should take up the cake eating habits of the relatively svelte Germans.

Beyond the reportage there are some more interesting, broader themes.

  • Broadly speaking, butter is used more regularly than margarine in all of the countries we researched
  • Artificial sweeteners are widely regarded as unhealthy (chemical / synthetic / make you feel tired)
  • There is widespread suspicion about functional foods which include vitamins and minerals as additives in order to make them more ‘healthy’
  • Unprompted, participants talked about farmers’ markets as a good place to find healthier food (in some cases in preference to health food shops or the organic counter in the supermarket)
  • Labels such as Bio or Bio organic are not trusted at all in some countries – they simply don’t believe these claims. And indeed extensive scientific research has largely borne out this belief.

It is striking that one of the common threads across the report is the notion of authenticity. In the research we asked whether it mattered whether food was produced locally or not and the response was that (other than concerns over carbon footprints) this was less important than whether food was grown without excessive chemicals, pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

In the TV shows and films of the 1980s we were sold a vision of the future where food would be dispensed from machines in tablet and powder form in the year 2000 and beyond. In reality, it seems we have collectively realised that there is something very precious about food that is ‘real’, in the sense that it is farmed in ways that would be recognisable to our ancestors.

The only caveat here is cost. People are prepared to pay incrementally more for ‘real food’, but not more than about 10%. But does this margin reflect the trade off against increased yields from using pesticides, antibiotics and intensive farming? Probably not.

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