New Zealand has a sophisticated food and agricultural products industry.
We produce enough food to feed 40 million people and yet we only have a population of 5 million and we export $20 billion worth of product to markets around the world.1
Are we eating all our profits?
While we may be successful food producers our health statistics tell a very different story.
In New Zealand 34% of adults are overweight (29% children) and 32% adults are obese (12.7% children) New Zealand is the third most obese country for adults (2nd most obese for children) in the OECD. New Zealand also has the 3rd highest rate of Type 2 Diabetes in the OECD.2
Despite this apparent robust production and over consumption of food around 14% of New Zealanders are ‘Food Insecure, 3 lacking access to adequate foods prescribed by our food-based dietary guidelines.4 This is a problem which costs not just the individual but the whole of society and is intergenerational.
For example in a Ministry of Health survey in 20195 it was found that children in food-insecure households were significantly more likely to experience barriers to accessing health care, to not meet fruit and vegetable consumption guidelines, eat breakfast at home for fewer than five days per week, eat fast cheap food and drink fizzy drinks three or more times a week, to be obese or overweight, and less likely to be a healthy weight.
You may well ask “How can we have an oversupply of food and consumption of foods that are energy dense and yet have such high levels of malnutrition?”
The answer – “It’s because these foods are nutrient poor”.
Bringing hunger into the open recently AUT professors Rush and Morse eloquently explained that “essential nutrients are the ones we cannot make ourselves, they must be consumed in the food we eat such as vitamins, minerals, amino and fatty acids and dietary fibre. Calories are not enough.
A short-fall of these life- giving nutrients cause ill health and is called ‘hidden hunger’- a form of malnutrition. Other forms of malnutrition being overweight and underweight. You can be malnourished at every size 6 “ – and every levels of socio-economic status- Lea
Rush and Morse also pointed out that while NZ exported plenty of butter (fat), meat (protein), fruit (apples and kiwifruit) we also imported ‘massive’ amounts of wheat, rice and sugar. – Foods which can easily be processed into ultra-processed foods.- Lea
Globally the over-consumption of cheap processed foods containing excess calories, sugar, salt and saturated fat is driving up our rates of diabetes and obesity at a time when the rising cost of living is taking fresh fruit and vegetables beyond the reach of average consumers
Defining levels of processed foods
To be fair, few of us have the time, skills or inclination to grow and grind our own wheat to make flour to bake bread. We owe a great debt to the farmers and food producers in New Zealand. However, the level of food processing seen in many foods today is pushing up food prices, driving down nutrient value and potentially making us unwell.
The NOVA system (not an acronynm) is a food classification system which has defined 4 food groups based on the nature, extent and purpose of industrial processing:
- unprocessed or minimally processed foods (fruit, vegetables, meat, eggs)
- processed culinary ingredients (oils, butter, salt, sugar)
- processed foods (canned or bottled vegetables, legumes, fruit, fish, pickled vegetables, smoked and cured foods)
- ‘ultra-processed foods’ are formulations of ingredients, mostly of exclusive industrial use, typically created by industrial techniques and processes. They have ingredients not normally used in home kitchens (soft drinks, energy drinks, confectionery, cakes, pastries, salty snacks, pre-prepared foods)7.
Ultra-processed foods may effect more than our weight
Researchers from Deakins Institute of Mental and Physical health and Clinical Translation (IMPACT) are looking at the impact of the food industry on mental and gut health.8
Professor Felice Jacka, Co-Director of Deakin’s Food and Mood Centre said “the rapid increase in inexpensive, convenient and heavily marketed ultra-processed foods on supermarket shelves was having a devastating impact on the health of our brains, our bodies and the planet”.
“Ultra-processed food and Western dietary patterns play a role in the risk for, development and severity of mental disorders through their likely influence on various pathways, including inflammation, oxidative stress, reduction in brain adaptiveness and by disrupting the microbiota-gut-brain axis,” Professor Jacka said.
Recommended changes to the production and sales of ultra-processed food
The World Health Organisation 9 and many public health experts are recommending changes to our food system e.g.
- Targeting ultra-processed foods in dietary guidelines and policies.
- Restrictions on advertising junk food especially to children,
- Developing food assistance programs to promote diets rich in unprocessed or minimally processed whole foods,
- Requiring front-of-package labelling that warns against the health implications of ultra-processed foods available in public institutions,
- Implementing zoning to limit the number of fast-food outlets near medical and educational institutions,
- Policies to improve biodiversity and soil health by large-scale promotion and adoption of regenerative farming techniques.8
Clearly for better health we need to move the narrative away from discussing nutrition as benefiting just our weight, lowering cholesterol, strengthening our immune system and mobility etc and focus on the importance of the gut: brain axis and changes to our food system.
Improving our mental and gut health and developing a sustainable environment are crucial goals for the future of mankind and the planet.
If you would like to assess the adequacy of your own diet to your good health then contact me today
Other articles by Lea on this topic
The gut: brain axis is important for sporting performance
Brain food: Part 2 Thinking food
Overcoming misconceptions about weight for better family health
Wise up to Discretionary foods
How to put ‘real’ flavour into our cooking
Get into fruit and vegetables for optimal health
How to make the most of the plant-based diet
Dietary Guidelines are they still relevant?
- Sustainable food supply. New Zealand G2G https://www.nzte.govt.nz/page/g2g-sustainable-food-supply
- L Food insecurity is a health issue for NZ. https://www.nmdhb.govt.nz/news-and-notices/food-security-is-a-health-issue-for-new-zealanders/
- Assessing the current state of Food Insecurity in NZ https://digital.wpi.edu/concern/student_works/p2676x885?locale=en
- Eating and Activity Guidelines for NZ adults https://www.health.govt.nz/system/files/documents/publications/eating-activity-guidelines-new-zealand-adults-updated-2020-oct22.pdf
- Household food insecurity among children
- Rush E, Morse Z. Bringing NZ’s hidden hunger problem into the open. Stuff May 3,2023. https://www.stuff.co.nz/opinion/132186079/bringing-nzs-hidden-hunger-problem-into-the-open
- Monteiro and colleagues. ‘ultra-processed foods’, diet quality, and health using the NOVA classification system. Rome, FAO, 2019.
- Eyre H. Good foods is vital for brain health so we must change the food industry. Rice University Baker Institute May 8, 2023 https://www.bakerinstitute.org/research/good-food-vital-brain-health-so-we-must-change-food-industry
- More ways to save more lives, for less money: World Health assembly adopts more best buys to tackle non-communicable diseases WHO International News 26 May 2023