Is it Just the Food that Matters?

At the Food Matters Live conference today, two contrasting moods among participants were in evidence.

Around the stands promoting next generation healthy superfoods, a perky optimism about their revolutionary nutritional potential and possibilities for market growth prevailed.

In the main conference room where discussions centred on the country’ obesity problem and who should bear responsibility for it, the mood was rather more sombre, however.

How is it that these two such different moods should coexist in such close proximity?  After all, if healthy food really has the potential to be a trillion dollar market, then why is the prognosis for the long-term socio-economic impact of obesity still so dim?

This paradox lies at the heart of the dilemma that currently faces the food industry and those that have a hand in developing policy for it.

After all, the evidence shows that people want to eat more healthily and that both the educational tools and the products are available to help them do so, and yet as a nation we continue to get fatter.

The explanation lies in the complexity of the problem, the range of contributory factors, the reliability of the evidence and the very ‘human’ behaviours that are at stake.

But this paradox also reveals a flaw in our approach to obesity.  Ignoring for one moment physical exercise, obesity’s other major lifestyle factor, the debate has centred entirely on food – on its advertising, labelling, content and cooking.

But what about eating?  After all this is what happens to food after it has been marketed, signposted, selected, sold and even prepared.  It is the most important intervention of all, and yet it scarcely gets a mention.

As Michael Hallsworth from the government’s Behavioural Insights or ‘Nudge’ unit stated during the Conference Behaviour Change session, this is the one area where the evidence base for action is particularly slim.

There is a raft of issues to explore here.  They include the triggers (both physical and emotional) that cause us to eat, how we eat, where and when we eat – and how we stop.

The benefits of investing in this field go beyond just improving understanding, however.  Indeed they have the potential to kick-start a public health debate that s becoming increasingly tired.

At a time when there is consensus about the need for all stakeholders to play their part in our nutritional health, a greater exploration of eating has the potential to open an exciting range of scientific and technical discussions – from the role of psychology and recipe creation to building and packaging design to the impact of social media and even the internet of things.

Food Matters Live 2014 may not have all the answers.  But Eating Matters Live 2015 just might do.