A New Zealand supermarket photo essay…WTF

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If you ever wondered why we have a serious health problem in this country – have a look at our food supply and the extraordinary (low) cost of refined carbohydrates.

All in a country that earns a living from growing and exporting whole plants and animals, and products derived thereof (mainly dairy).

This is my photo essay from walking around my local Countdown supermarket in Takapuna, Auckland.  They have started these new super specials called “price lock down”.  I didn’t see a single “lock down” or aisle end display which wasn’t refined rubbish (except the beer and wine ones when you first walk in).

Look and weep.  Swear if you need to.  Mine usually starts with “What the f…”

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3 kg of sugar for $5, no nutrients. This is about $US4. I know you guys have the same in your countries too, that doesn’t make it OK.

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Corn chips everywhere – several displays in store.

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You get the idea.

My last rant is around how this is OK?

In civilized society we have laws precisely to protect us from the harms that things do to us without our permission. Those harms are called externalities.

Processed cheap, and often subsidized food, is harming us. It harms our most vulnerable the most. It does so because this is often the only option for those with the least resources. It’s also everywhere. That’s unfair and makes for a far worse society.

Change the law to protect the people. That’s not nanny state, that’s responsible governance. That’s the same reason we enforce drink-driving laws, speeding and safety belt wearing. I don’t hear anyone accusing the government of being a “nanny state” for these?

17 comments

  1. Claudia Parker · · Reply

    Yes, it’s the same here in Canada, all the rubbish is cheap and when it doesn’t sell immediately it gets marked down 50% to ensure that it does! I no longer shop the inner isles of the store except for tea. I even have to read the labels on the dairy products carefully to make sure they didn’t slip something in that shouldn’t be there. I haven’t touched processed or sugary or artificial sweetened food this year and I don’t even intend to again. I no longer eat any wheat. My migraines have gone, my joint aches are gone and I feel 20 years younger. My weight is not going down on the scales, but my fat is disappearing, so I’m super happy.

  2. Di Soffe · · Reply

    I was teaching in Indonesia and completed an Inquiry Unit with a group of students about food choices. The local supermarket was very like the pictures you show. It’s interesting that five years on, and on my return to NZ, the same problem is obvious.

  3. Actually, I buy that Delmaine tomato sauce with the black label, on the upper left. It’s a condiment and the way a splash of it improves a curry or a meatball makes the few additives in it, which don’t make an appearance in anything else I buy, acceptable to me.
    67% tomato, sugar, treacle (27% sugars from these 3), salt, acetic acid (260), Hydroxypropyl distarch phosphate (1422), dried onion, dried red capsicum, tamarind concentrate, dried garlic, ascorbic acid (300), flavour (contains gluten, soy, so will be from fermented soy sauce), herbs, spices.
    Obviously I’d like a more natural sauce that had the same flavour , but a little goes a long way.

    I saw a large bottle of oil, corn I think, for sale in an Indian shop yesterday for a price that worked out as not much more than $2 per litre. Be sure to include the cheap oils and spreads in your next horror show!

  4. I saw the exchange you had with @whole9sopacific and others on Twitter and felt this needed a bit more space to give my response.

    I’m in Australia, rather than NZ, but we’ve obviously got similar items in every supermarket and I know I’ve ranted about them plenty of times, however, despite that, I’m still curious what you mean by “Change the law to protect the people”. To me the problem with that statement is in grand terms it sounds ok but the devil is very much in the details.

    Take one of your examples above: Plain Flour. How do you propose regulating that? First you’d need to categorically prove that plain flour is harmful. That’s going to take you a good few years and even then, are you absolutely sure you’re correct? Let’s say, just for the sake of argument that it turns out that a certain type wheat flour actually plays a very beneficial role in the gut biome and considering as per Larry Smarr’s video here that we only know about the properties of about 15% of the gut bacteria that’s not too incredulous a possibility:

    Ok, perhaps that’s taking Devil’s advocacy too far so let’s dial it back a bit: How do you define the plain flour that you’re going to regulate? Just plain? Bleached? White? Artisan? Of a certain age? Ground by a local mill that sells a special heritage grain to an otherwise healthy group of hobbyist breadmakers? Wheat? A particular type of wheat, excepting others? Can you imagine not only trying to define it but then define the laws and the policing of that?

    You compare your idea to the governance of “drink-driving laws, speeding and safety belt wearing” but those are simplistic binary examples: You’re either drink-driving or not, you’re either speeding or not, you’re either wearing a safety belt or not. There are no nuances. Food is nuanced and not only that but so are the opinions of those who’d implement governance on it, including those of us that agree that the foodstuffs you point to are not doing anyone any good.

    I’d not be surprised if at some point you’ve already commented on Denmark’s “fat tax on butter, milk, cheese, pizza, meat, oil and processed food if the item contains more than 2.3% saturated fat” which was abandoned a year later. It was a big net that would’ve caught not only people using those products unwisely but also those putting butter on their grass-fed meats, veggies, etc.

    My other and perhaps larger concern about laws that are nuanced is the small producers that may get caught in the net. Large food producers have a proven ability to reformulate around any law, smaller ones do not. Let’s say you regulate sugar, do you then regulate products containing certain amounts of sugar? Jams? Which ones? The mass produced one on the supermarket shelves or the one done by the local Country Women’s Institute at a local farmer’s market? This may start to sound ridiculous but I’m sure you’ll have been following some of the amazing things going on with the FDA and small producers in the US. I’m pretty sure they’d nod in agreement as the SWAT teams are sent in to destroy litres of raw milk in the name of “responsible governance”.

    I just cannot help but think government intervention would be clumsy at best. In the end it has to start with a change in individual and community attitudes to food and the culture of food. Personal responsibility is ultimately, whether we like it or not, part of that.

    1. Clumsy perhaps but better than futile which what an education program in the midst of cheap processed food is,

      1. A succinct, albeit admittedly unsatisfying reply, but, your house, your rules.

        It’s sad that you feel that an education program is “futile” but you’re on the inside of that struggle which I expect brings with it no end of exasperation. Don’t you feel though that any such changes take time and it isn’t always immediately obvious that public opinion is changing until you see stories like:

        “Butter’s growing popularity — consumption has risen 25% in the last decade — coincides with more understanding about the health hazards of its processed counterparts.”

        http://articles.latimes.com/2014/jan/07/business/la-fi-butter-20140108

        This is in spite of “an education program” which has been advising the opposite for years. I don’t see it reflected in our supermarkets yet where butter is still a minority next to the numerous “spreads”.

        I think perhaps my bottom line is I want to live in a country where the people made the better decisions more than one where they were forced to do so.

      2. Oh yes, sorry more time this morning. I still think the food supply already is in a legal framework and we already subsidize or tax certain things to reflect the fuller cost the have in society. The issue is that in many countries we already subsidize the junk processed carbs and not what might be considered healthy. Although as you point out that’s a complex debate as well.

        I agree we need a good bottom up movement, but that movement will ultimately drive policy. Policy is always by definition in a legal framework.

        So it’s very easy to say people should choose this and not that, But the reality thT is too simplistic and in every other area of public health hasn’t worked. What the evidence shows is that multi level Ottawa Charter type intervention ultimately drives population change.

        Look we are all individuals, but dealing with a population level change requires the healthiest houce to also be the easiest choice. At the moment it’s just not, and that’s the point. Junk food prices should reflect the full cost they impose on society.

      3. And one more thing, I agree the people need to make the decisions, that’s why most people prefer the imperfect system if democracy. We do vote for policy and law. I’ll admit the system isn’t perfect….

  5. actually I do rile against the seat belt but not much i can do the insurance companies forced this upon us, as I am neutral in political affairs but also because fighting against gov intrusion or meddling in affairs that do not concern them would amount to a life sucking battle for every little intrustion (instead of dealing with the actual prinicples involved)nothing else would get done and it could be overturned in an instant and all that hard work would be brought to nothing. it is just not worth it especially since Jehovah will be doing away with gov pretty soon (daniel 2;44) we are at the toes of the image nothing left no other world power will arise, hence the stone (representing god kingdom) will crush and put an end to human rulership anyway.and involvement with politics is to deny Gods soverignty and would be treason. by the way I am aware that junk food is heavily subsidzied by taxpayers, if people paid the real price up front and realized howmuch this junk cost they would not buy it the companies would go out of business (as theyshould) or better yet why dont they take all that sugar carb junk no one buys (some do buy sugar it is okay in moderationlike in tea or whatever)and make fuel for cars or maybe a product comes on the market to use regulary sugar in it to make electricity, humm, food for thought here.

  6. While walking through the grocery stores here in Washington state, U.S.A.,
    it feels as if the shingles have fallen from my eyes. Watching
    the obese people walking up and down the isles of nothing
    but carbohydrates, the odds that they will choose something that
    is healthful, is practically nil.

    It’s all just so much crap!

    It’s really surprising that there are any healthy, fit and trim
    people at all in this area.

    Makes me sad.

    1. It’s true that the way the physical health of a shopper or their family corresponds well with the type (not the amount) of food in their trolley at the check out. And refined carbohydrate foods, white foods, are the main item that correlates. Rolls, biscuits, pastries, desserts, sodas, treats. Meats will be less fresh, more processed and stodgy (pies, pizzas rather than steaks), and there is usually not much meat. I assume this means that fast food outlets will be the main source of animal protein. Fats will tend to be spreads rather than butter, fruit will be bananas (but many people where I live buy fruit and vege outside the supermarket, so the experiment should probably ignore fruit and vege).
      It seems to me that a good way to understand diabesity is to look at the shopping of the people it affects in a statistical fashion.

  7. I would think that rather than focus purely on sugar, perhaps a better way would be to increase GST on processed food. Easily done through SKUs, given all processed/manufactured food would have SKUs. A higher GST collection to combat the greater health burden, and aslo gradually change behaviour (hopefully).

  8. I have two ideas about regulation to avoid the need to split hairs;

    One is to impose taxes that are merely intended to roll back overseas subsidies on foods produced there. This would mainly catch offshore corn, soy and wheat and their products, but I wish someone would study the potential impact of this. We don’t subsidise anymore, and it hasn’t killed Kiwi agriculture or fishing.

    The second is to make it illegal for industry to play any role whatever in nutrition or lifestyle education. Their duty should be to provide accurate information to the MOH etc. when asked, but not to lobby in any way. Adverts that pretend to educate should be pulled. We might need to change the way we make TV shows. At the very least, schools should drop all industry sponsored pretense at education.

  9. Here’s the press release on the new WHO report on this issue.
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140202184847.htm

    Mentions subsidies and declining intake of animal fat

    Taking data from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, the authors found that the intake of animal fats decreased slightly from 212 kcal per capita per day in 1999 to 206 in 2008 and that the caloric intake increased slightly for six of those years with 3432 calories per capita per day in 2002 compared to 3437 in 2008.

    economic disincentives for industries to sell fast food, ultra-processed foods and soft drinks such as an ultra-processed food tax and/or the reduction or elimination of subsidies to growers/companies using corn for rapid tissue growth, excessive amounts of fertilizers, pesticides, chemicals and antibiotics;

    – is one of the recommended actions. An ultra-processed food tax, not a sugar or fat tax per se.

  10. Thomas Madsen · · Reply

    Hi Grant

    Nice post – as are the others on your blog. I recognize much of it from our runs in NZ 2 years ago…glad you are taking your time to promote the positive message of diet and exercise.

    After reading the post I started wondering…

    It is paradoxical that some people greet liberty and rage against paternalism, while being exposed to advertising of goods, ideas and life style choices that can make us worse off. Being overly cautious about governmental paternalism seems irrational as Internet advertising is already tailored according to prior visited webpages and is a potent “commercial nudge”. Someone who finds this OK but opposes antismoking campaigns on cigarette packages because of its paternalistic aim must be pro ‘privatizing the profits while socializing the losses’, which again seems irrational…

    Thanks again.

    Thomas from Denmark

    1. Good to hear form you Thomas. Hope all is well over there. We miss you as always.

    2. helsonwheels · · Reply

      That is such an interesting concept you put forward Thomas… ‘privatizing the profits while socializing the losses’. I have seen the idea previously that perhaps if Joe Public realised how much ill health was actually costing him/her, rather than the disconnected idea of government paying for it, they might become more invested in bringing about change. Just a thought….

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