Do you find the supermarket a confusing place?
Do you struggle to work out how to feed your children a healthy diet?
Do your kids get ‘treat foods’ every day?
What about all the ‘healthy foods’ that you see in ads?
If you’re confused, join the majority of people. It’s war out there! It’s you against all the clever food marketing gurus in the country. Food manufacturers spend a fortune persuading you to buy their products, and most of the time you don’t even know they’re marketing to you.
Let’s pause for a moment and consider the ‘food chain’. Food needs to start somewhere. In or on the ground, that is. At a farm, or in the wild. Someone produces it for a living and sells it. Sometimes it can be sold and transported several times before it gets to your kitchen. The more times it’s sold, the more it costs you, as the consumer. Now, a manufacturer muscles into the picture. The manufacturer buys lots of different raw ingredients and manufactures a ‘food’, packages it, and sends it to a place where you buy it. More cost, because the manufacturer needs to made a really large profit to cover all the costs involved.
How can the manufacturer sell the product for a price you’re able to pay, and still make a profit? The answer is by managing costs. Manufacturers manage costs by paying as little as possible for the ingredients they use. That’s one reason why sugar has become such an important ingredient in manufactured food. It’s cheap. The other reason is that humans have been educated to favour sweet things over just about every other taste. Other bulk fillers are starches and saturated fat: they improve what we call “mouth feel”.
Food manufacturers have spent millions of dollars working on strategies to get people hooked on their products. One way they do this is to work on achieving the best balance of salt, sugar and fat to make sure that we can’t stop eating their product. This kind of eating is actually a primeval instinct, going right back to the hunting and gathering era of our ancestors, when food wasn’t always plentiful, and it needed to contain as many calories as possible to sustain them until they found more.
If you tend to pick up your fish from the supermarket freezer, the chances are that you’re not getting a great deal of fish for your money. Fish fingers, for example, contain just over 50% fish. The rest is filler, including clever, inexpensive coating that has the addictive taste qualities of sugar, salt and fat. If you’re fond of browsing in the biscuit aisle, you can see another strategy at work. Manufacturers have discovered that we love ‘surprising textures’: biscuits with a crunchy exterior and a soft centre, layered biscuits, biscuits with whole or crushed nuts or seeds. These are all strategies to keep you coming back for more. Even in the ‘health food’ aisle, we’re seeing more and more prepared, packaged ‘treat’ snacks.
But don’t heap all the blame on the manufacturers. They keep producing products that the public keeps buying. You sustain their business! Tim Tams are a constant on the supermarket shelves because people buy them in quantity. The same can be said of thousands of other products that have stood the test of time. As manufacturers try to swing behind the ‘healthy push’, there’s often still far too much sugar, salt, bad fats such as seed oils, and too much carbohydrate that turns to sugars in your body. Reduced fat products usually contain fillers to compensate, and can be even less healthy than eating full-fat versions. Even in the health aisle, it’s a case of ‘buyer beware’.
Some people argue that ‘big brother’ should step in and there should be taxes on high sugar, salt and fat foods. Others say that the answer lies in better partnering with the food industry to encourage more wholegrain and vegetable content in packaged foods. Still others say that ultimately, it’s you as a responsible individual who needs to educate yourself to eat and live as healthfully as possible.
I have a very simple, fundamental rule for the foundation of all good eating: try to eat foods as close to their original state as possible. This means you’re best to avoid packaging and instead, stick to the fresh food section of your supermarket. Also, do as much as possible of your shopping at local farmers’ markets, and fruit and vegetable specialists. Buy organic where you can. If you have the space and opportunity, grow some of your own fruit, vegetables and herbs. This way, you’ll be eating as close to ‘real food’ as possible.
So, what to put in your shopping basket? Real, whole food that has as little ‘packaging’ as possible, and hasn’t been through a manufacturing process. That may take a little getting used to if you’ve been buying processed and packaged food for a long time. But once you taste the difference, and learn how to prepare simple, tasty meals, you’ll never want to go back.