In my world, dinner time is becoming increasingly fraught. Not only do my two children suffer reactions that make peanut brittle and egg sandwiches somewhat deadly, my husband has recently developed an allergy to prawns and I, on the advice of a Chinese acupuncturist, no longer eat gluten, dairy or corn. We are turning the clock back 25 years and becoming a household of meat and three veg. But without the pudding.
Anecdotally it seems every where I go, people are avoiding certain foods. There must be a joke that begins – a Coeliac, a Paleo and a Vegan walked into a restaurant…
But, is this heightened awareness merely a hothouse effect brought about by my own situation or the company I keep? Are active food avoidance behaviours actually that common in the wider community?
The news is often full of stories about our burgeoning obesity crisis, and how taste and the need for convenience drives unhealthy choices. (Did you know that one in four adults eat no vegetables on an average day?)
But, what about at the other end of the market – where matters of health, image, religion or moral positions lead people to make certain food choices outside of the norm?
According to the Australian Health Survey, around 17% of Australians aged 2 and over report avoiding food for medical reasons (allergies or intolerances) and 7% make choices based on their religion. The prevalence is higher amongst women across both of these groups. Certainly, the prevalence of allergy and diagnosed intolerances have sky-rocketed over the past decade.
But beyond these two core reasons for food choices, what else is driving the trial (and adaption) of unusual diets and food plans?
With 13% of Australians apparently on a diet at anyone time, weight loss remains a core driver of food fads. Who can forget living through the Atkins Diet phase, which saw my best-friends (smart people, both) equating fruit and veggies with potato chips and eating KFC without the skin on as a “healthy choice”.
But it is not just about weight loss anymore. There also seems to be a growing interest in overall health and an increasing desire to take control of one's health. This no doubt extends into food choices as well.
The Paleo Diet, primarily about avoiding grains, is having its time in the sun. Last year it was the most popular diet Googled, and there are over 5000 books related to the Paleo Diet on Amazon. And, while sugar free is not a new concept, the idea of quitting sugar altogether seems to be enjoying popularity. Both of these promise more holistic health benefits - increased energy, longevity, anti-cancer properties… and a reduction in earwax (seriously).
Food fads are largely driven by successful book launches, and The Akins Diet Revolution, The Paleo Diet and I Quit Sugar for Life are no exceptions.
What is interesting, however, is how often these food choices seem to go against the collective wisdom of experts. All these plans mentioned exclude things that seem naturally part of a healthy diet. No fruit if you’re quitting sugar, apparently. And the list of problems nutritionists have with the Paleo Diet is pretty extensive.
So why do people flock to these theories in such large numbers? Is it just about a quick fix? Or is there something more? What role does the lack of trust in food manufacturers play? Or the underlying fear that the health messages we are being told by our government might be for sale to the highest bidder?
Trust is a big issue here for brands. Building that trust and not squandering it with spurious (even if legally defendable) claims about what your product can do for people is a lesson more corporates could learn. And don't try and pretend your product is healthy when it is not. Consumers are not stupid.
What they are, however, is willing and eager to compromise. While it is clear that food choices will always have a role to play in the effort to feel healthier, the desire for balance remains a prevalent position many consumers appear to take. I, for one, cannot resist chocolate, no matter who tells me it is bad for me or how much pain it causes me. Reduced, yes. Cut out completely? No. Balance and compromise remain central decision making criteria.
Because of this, there will always be a role for brands in more indulgent food spaces. Overtly owning what you stand for (like Magnum is doing) or highlighting the emotional space your brand can occupy (like Nutella has done with their lovely Rise and Shine campaign) represent ways for sugar rich brands to still connect meaningfully with consumers, even those with a eye on the health-o-meter.
by Sharlene Zeederberg