Post-pandemic trends, defining healthy, obesity, sustainability, and feeding the hungry

Several interesting threads appeared on the web in recent weeks. Do post-pandemic trends reveal a major shift in consumer behavior? Ultra-processed foods are still a red-hot topic. A bill introduced in Congress could have dramatic consequences on the food supply. Consumers are weighing in on which foods are healthy and which ones are not. Sustainability is still relevant. Hunger is an issue that won’t go away.

Post-pandemic food trends. It is still too early to project long-term trends in how we will come out of the pandemic. Some interesting short-term directions are clear. Good news! Americans are now eating healthier, buying more fresh fruits and vegetables. It signals a fundamental change in the way Americans shop and eat! We are also cooking more at home. Fresh produce provides more minerals and vitamins. Fresh fruit and vegetables also protect against digestive, heart, and autoimmune diseases. While still on the health front, consumers are eating more chocolate. Yes, we view it as a comfort food, but it also functions as a health food. More premium chocolate products. More dark chocolate. Peanut butter and caramel are the two favored, complementary flavors.

Habits developed during the pandemic are still with us. The International Food Information Council concurs with healthier eating trends. Many shoppers remain afraid to go to the grocery store. Home delivery is still strong. We shop online for food more than pre-pandemic but not as much as during the pandemic. Will these trends hold? Not everyone was on board with the rosy scenario. The American Society for Nutrition paints a bleaker picture. “[C]onsumption of unhealthy snacks, desserts and sugary drinks” increased during the pandemic. Consumers continue their concerns about food safety and availability. Prices are rising affecting what foods we can and cannot buy. It is too early to tell what longer-term trends will emerge. Maybe we are not eating as healthy as we think!

How do consumers define healthy? Consumers now emphasize positive aspects of food to classify a food as healthy. Top terms associated with healthy foods are fiber, fruits, protein, and vegetables. A similar survey conducted five years ago emphasized the absence of unhealthy aspects. Top things to avoid are calories, carbohydrates, fat, sodium, and sugar. Dieting is no longer a major concern. Taking ideas from various plans is now in. Stress management and reduced anxiety now mean more than losing weight. Wellness and immunity are the new consumer goals. The survey found that 81% of Americans considered themselves above average in health! Who, then, is eating all those ultra-processed products? Do plant-based diets function as immunity boosters and protection from COVID-19? There is not yet sufficient information to draw a conclusion.

What is making us fat? Eat This, Not That has the answer. Well, the site first qualifies its comment. There is no one reason. The leading reason is “our food environment promotes heavily processed foods that get digested quickly and leaves you hungry soon after eating.” So it is both the food and our culture. We know it is so, because Science tells us it is so. Or is Science that definitive? A recent study (1) on childhood obesity also points to ultra-processed food as the problem. The study actually tracks individual children from age 7 each year for ten years. It combines 3-day food questionnaires with specific body measures. It appears to be a comprehensive study. The main problem is that it does not separate out junk foods from other ultra-processed products in NOVA. Childhood obesity is also on the rise in India. The story mentions ultra-processed food, but calories were of more concern. Primary reasons were overconsumption of foods high in sugar, salt, and saturated fat

Not everyone is backing away from ultra-processed foods. The Angry Chef criticizes the stigma of ultra-processed foods on his new blogsite, Fruition. Chef Anthony Warner’s main complaint about NOVA is that ultra-processed products encompass too many foods. The studies demonstrating that they are unhealthy are correlation studies and not definitive. We have not compared notes, but our conclusions are similar. Also defending ultra-processing is David McClements of the University of Massachusetts. His interest is in developing plant-based proteins that are healthier and more appealing. Unlike me, he is a vegetarian hoping to become a vegan. The conversion will will come with a greater availability of high-quality, plant-based products. He operates on the assumption that “ultra-processed food does not have to be unhealthy.”

Now for the big news! A congresswoman introduced a bill to close the GRAS loophole for additives in food. It requires a 90-day review of all GRAS substances by the FDA. To keep using these substances companies would need to show safety data. Elimination of GRAS substances in food could be catastrophic. Be careful what you ask for. It would remove many products on supermarket shelves. Not to worry as sodas, both sugared and diet, should be available. Am I being alarmist? Would over 50% of food in the American marketplace disappear overnight? What would this do to prices of Real Food? How would the poor, many of whom depend on processed foods, fare? Note, Rep. DeLauro who introduced the bill is no obscure backbencher. She Chairs the House Appropriations Committee.

On the sustainability front cows have started wearing masks to reduce methane emissions. We all now know that it is burps, not farts that make cattle an environmental menace. This wearable technology traps an estimated 50% of their methane emissions. Will it soon become a fashion statement on cattle farms throughout the land? Palm oil is back in the news for environmental problems. Threats include deforestation, loss of diversity, and release of greenhouse gases. From a nutritional standpoint, palm oil is rich in antioxidants. It is also high in saturated fatty acids and may promote cardiovascular disease. Palm oil has become a go-to substitute for partially hydrogenated oils during reformulation. Not sure if these changes represent the expected health benefit for the consumer.

Last week I learned about an excellent source of food podcasts, The Ingredient Panel. It has an excellent session on upcycled ingredients. Back in the day we called the concept waste utilization. The rationale was preventing pollution and saving money for the company. Now the challenges are greater, and the justification is sustainability. Such operations produce new and novel ingredients with unique functional characteristics. Are these ingredients ones that need approval under GRAS status? If so, what do we do to balance out safety concerns and environmental stewardship?

Food aid to the hungry is seeing an infusion of money. USDA will invest $1 Billion to support food banks. Half of the funds will go to improving nutritional quality of the food available to the clients. 40% supports local and regional food systems. 10% covers operational costs for local food banks. Concerns are rising levels of obesity and unhealthy eating practices during the pandemic. Behind the push for healthier foods is a desire to stop subsidizing obesity. This effort also extends to limit SNAP (food stamps) purchases to healthy foods only. Will the poor have to bear the brunt of the food police? Buying patterns of the poor are no less healthy than those of the general public. Are we requiring more stringent requirements on the poor than we do on the rest of society?

Food pantry volunteer loading up trunk of car with whole and packaged foods.
Contactless delivery of food pantry items. More efficient but less choice for patrons. Photo by Roberta Parillo.

As a food pantry volunteer, I welcome the infusion of funds. The pandemic caused us to abandon a supermarket-style setting. We now have pre-packed contactless delivery. Efficiency of the operation and need for fewer volunteers led us to keep the current system. My concern is the lack of choice for our clients. They receive some processed foods like deli items, canned and boxed foods, and bread. We also provide frozen, whole meats and fresh produce. I worry about restrictions on the degree of choice for our clients. Will pantries need to limit choices in the name of nutrition and by our contactless loading of vehicles?

Catching up. Don’t miss the excellent article on the benefits and limitations of titanium dioxide. For all chocolate lovers: check out the video on making a chocolate bar from scratch. It’s not as easy as making home-made mayo or twinkies.

a dried version of a cacao pod
Cacao pod

Next week: Hooked: Are foods as addictive as cocaine, heroin and other drugs?

Reference:

(1) Chang, K., N. Khandpur, D. Neri, M. Touvier, I. Huybrechts, C. Millett, and E.P. Vamos, 2021. Association between childhood consumption of ultraprocessed food and adiposity trajectories in the Avon longitudinal study of parents and children birth cohort. JAMAPediatr.doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.1573

4 thoughts on “Post-pandemic trends, defining healthy, obesity, sustainability, and feeding the hungry

  1. Discussing what makes food healthy brings out my compulsive obsessive nature like few other food related topics can do. I’ve been wrestling with the nutrient centric approach since the early 1990s, but have now decided to concede and accept the complex nutrient content claim developed by the FDA as my standard. The FDA developed this complex nutrient content claim when the original Nutrition Facts Label was mandated and both government and industry have marketed healthy aggressively ever since.

    Why did I wrestle? Because I know that food is so much more than the sum of its nutrient parts. Why have I conceded? Well, I have two reasons. My first is that nutrients are important. Too many nutrients of the wrong kind are detrimental to our health. And not enough nutrients of the right kind will promote our health. My second reason is more personal and more nuanced. I’ve discovered NOVA. This food classification system provides me with language to talk the “so much more” part after we’ve finished talking about what makes food healthy.

    I read Chef Anthony Warner and totally agree with him too many foods with different characteristics are characterised as ultra-processed. But I remain an avid proponent of NOVA exploration. The first 3 groups make talking about food quality with chefs and cooks easy. The 4th group in my opinion is lacking and needs some work. But the two perspectives work together as complementary metrics. Quality is holistic and requires stepping back. Healthy is reductionist and requires analytic breakdown.

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    1. I will concede that groups 1-3 in NOVA facilitate discussion with chefs and cooks. I also agree with the holistic nature of quality, one of my major pursuits as a food scientist. Your characterization of healthy as reductionist is spot on. It is used far too cavalierly when describing foods. I have talked enough about ultra-processed.

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