Dispelling nutrition myths, ranting, and occasionally, raving


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Warning!: Your groceries may be making you fat

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My friend and fellow dietitian Gemma tweeted a link to this story: Bespoke health warnings on supermarket till receipts to fight obesity last week. After checking to see if she had a blog post planned on the topic, and receiving her go-ahead to write about it, here I am!

The idea is that supermarkets could print tailored nutrition advice on customer receipts based on the items they purchase. These would be warnings based on the purchases a customer makes. Too much fatty food? Your receipt might tell you to skip the chips next time and go for the carrots instead. Too much sugar? Your receipt might tell you to lay off the candy bars and buy some lettuce. As current efforts to curb the obesity epidemic have been failing, apparently Public Health thinks that this might “nudge” customers to make healthier choices. Because shaming works so well. *Tears out hair* Sigh.

Thankfully, this idea is still in the early stages. I hope that this means it will never see the light of day. Why? There are a number of issues with this endeavor. As I pointed out, fat shaming (or any type of dietary shaming) is not an effective method to induce behaviour change. Does anyone really want their grocery store judging their purchases? Telling them they shouldn’t have bought that ice cream for a party? I certainly don’t. I know that with all of the misleading marketing and packaging navigating the grocery store aisles can be difficult and time-consuming. However, I don’t think many people need to be reminded that what they’re buying is crap when they load up their carts with fries and pop. If a grocery store had receipts that made me feel badly about my purchases I would probably just shop at another store. That leads me to a few other issues.

One, if a public health campaign like this were to be undertaken, it would have to be implemented in all supermarkets in order to be effective. I don’t think anyone is going to choose to shop at a chain because the receipts there tell them they made bad choices. Two, would anyone even look at these nutrition statements on their receipts? I know that I rarely examine my receipts. If a campaign doesn’t reach most people, even if were well-designed, it’s unlikely to be effective. Three, public health would need to get buy-in from the supermarkets, and I don’t see that happening. Why would any retailer want customers to leave feeling worse about themselves than when they entered their store? Removing candy from the tills makes sense. It’s great publicity and it’s something that customers want. Shaming customers for their purchases is not good publicity, and as far as I’m aware, it’s not something customers are clamouring for.

My final concern is with how the algorithm to determine nutritional merit of foods would be created. Would someone be told to buy less fatty food if they bought a jar of coconut oil or a stick of butter? Would they be told to buy less sugar if they bought a bottle of maple syrup? How would “unhealthy” be determined? What about someone who buys mostly fresh produce and minimally processed foods but throws a bag of chips in there or some cheese? Would a block of cheese be given the same treatment as a bag of chips? After all, there would be more fat in a block of cheese than a bag of chips.

I see this campaign as both problematic and offensive. If public health really wants to see systemic change they should work to change the system, not the consumer.


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Ready meals vs home cooking

A recent study in England found that recipes prepared from celebrity chefs’ cookbooks were less healthy than “ready meals” prepared by major supermarkets. I doubt that this comes as a huge surprise to many. Did anyone really think that celebrity chef meals were bastions of health?

There are a few problems that jump out at me immediately. One, I don’t think it’s appropriate to compare meals that are not the same. That is, if they’re making comparisons they should be comparing lasagna to lasagna, spinach salad to spinach salad, and so forth. I’m assuming that the types of meals available from the grocery stores differ tremendously from the types of meals featured in the cookbooks. Two, you have control over what goes in your meal if you’re preparing it at home. You can make modifications, substitutions, and omissions to improve the nutrition of the dish you’re cooking. If you purchase a ready meal from a grocery store you have no control over what’s going into it. You’re also far more likely to eat the entire thing, whereas when preparing your own meal you can have a smaller portion and fill-up on a healthy side salad. Three, this study only looked at recipes from celebrity chef cookbooks. There are a wealth of non-celeb cookbooks full of healthy recipes. We also can’t be certain that the criteria used to measure a meal’s healthfulness was truly the best criteria. It seems to emphasis the presence/absence of “unhealthy” nutrients but doesn’t look at the presence/absence of healthy nutrients.

Were these researchers funded by the supermarkets? I think that this study sends an unfortunate message to people. It suggests that buying a ready meal may be a healthier option than preparing a meal at home.  I am still a staunch advocate of home cooking as the healthiest option for everyone.