sweeheart-porridgePhoto Credit: Porridge Lady

A leisurely breakfast is one of life’s pleasures. Saturday morning is my favourite: the weekend lies ahead of me and I can savour whatever I fancy in an unhurried fashion. Sometimes, though, whilst my porridge cools down or as my eggs are cooking, the radio or TV news will burst my blissful morning bubble. Doom-laden headlines in the popular media tell me everything wrong with what I’m eating. Instead of enjoying the nourishing food I’ve prepared, I fixate on reports that my jam has too much sugar, my coffee is driving soil erosion… and my delicious salted butter? Well, that’s responsible for a multitude of sins, not least methane-induced climate change, antimicrobial resistance, heart disease, and before I forget, global biodiversity losses.

I jest – but there is little denying that consumers seem to be bombarded with an endless stream of proclamations from government, farmers, manufacturers, newspapers, or their very own doctor advising them of the virtues or vices (be they nutritional, environmental or economic) of any foodstuff one could care to think of. Some of the above-mentioned actors in the food system may be acting out of self-interest, but when it comes to national government, one might hope that citizen wellbeing enjoys top priority. Zooming in for now on nutrition, it seems at first glance that this really is the case. In the UK, the 2010-2015 coalition government issued a ‘Call to Action’ declaring obesity “probably the most widespread threat to health and wellbeing” (p5) in England. This policy document places great emphasis on educating citizens as a way to meet ambitious obesity reduction targets. Recommendations include the provision of guidelines on nutrition, physical activity, and the changes that we can make to our own diets and lifestyles to tackle our obesity (and that of our children). Yet, experience has shown that such policy is not having the desired effect: despite widespread efforts, no country has achieved a significant decrease in obesity in the past three decades, and trends in the UK are no different.

at-least-5-a-day3Some familiar public health advice. Credit: NHS.

So where are things going wrong? Many of these government efforts to promote health operate on the basis of filling an information deficit: people are seen to be simply lacking the facts, but it is assumed that once they are equipped with the right information, individuals will see the light and change their behaviour. In the realm of food in the UK, this trend started in the 1970s and 1980s. Marches forward in food technology were bringing innovative new food products onto the market, and to facilitate this, the Ministry of Farming and Fisheries (now DEFRA) responded by loosening the compositional standards that had ensured the quality and safety of traditional foodstuffs in the 19th century. In place of legal minimum standards came enhanced ingredient and nutrition labelling, applied to end-user packaging, the thinking being that this alternative gave more power to consumers to make appropriate food choices.

manlooksatolivesFood labelling puts the onus on the consumer. Photo: Shutterstock.

This tendency towards information provision has, however, serious consequences beyond its poor record at reducing obesity rates. The implication that gets bundled in with such modern health promotion efforts is that we, everyday citizens, are always free to make wise lifestyle choices that lead us to healthy weight, cholesterol, or blood glucose levels. Detailed labelling combines with nutrition guidelines to ‘medicalise’ food: just read the manual, stupid! Those who continue to struggle with dietary health in the abundance of advice, the message goes, are failed citizens, costing their health systems money and unable to pay attention to a traffic light system. This powerful idea persists despite the shape-shifting nature of dietary guidelines, which consumers perceive as conflicting and changing constantly. Policies relying on information provision also fail to recognise evidence showing that material deprivation and socioeconomic environments not only impact health directly, but also constrain people’s ability to effect lifestyle change. Nutrition guidelines are thus effectively biased towards the least vulnerable sections of society, and leave the most exposed feeling guilty.

The effects of this individualisation of decision-making can be also seen in the anxieties that individuals experience when trying to assess the risks and benefits associated with food products whose true origins and properties may not be immediately discernible. In a globalised food system, this opaqueness can extend beyond a food’s health-giving qualities to include the environmental or labour conditions under which a foodstuff was produced. The repercussions of this are that people are expected to ‘vote with their forks’ and effectively buy their way to a healthier, fairer, more sustainable world. The proliferation of food assurance schemes such as ‘fair-trade’ buys into this virtuous vision.

All of this labelling, stamping and certifying is certainly successful at cluttering up food packaging, leaving us bewildered, but what it is not able to do is transform the actual food choices that are available to consumers. The vast majority of us do our grocery shopping at the supermarket, and although government labelling and ingredient-listing requirements have done a good job at telling us what’s already on their shelves, successive governments have done relatively little to influence what makes it onto the shelves in the first place. Industrial and farming voices have generally been heard louder than consumer health concerns, and the result is the cheap availability of a plethora of manufactured food products which are highly processed and exceedingly craveable.

It would seem, then, that the narrative of the informed and thus empowered consumer simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. What ends up in a citizen’s kitchen is intricately tied to the broader food system and how it is governed. No amount of labelling can alter what a foodstuff contains, but greater intervention by government on other actors in the food system – for example limiting the excessive price promotions retailers place on fatty and sugary foods – could help us achieve a healthier balance in our cupboards and fridges, and hopefully our anxious minds too.