Are we eating to live healthily?

6th Nov, 2015

Last weekend I went to visit my 90 year old mother-in-law in Devon. Not surprisingly given she is a nonagenarian, a popular topic of conversation is her health. She has always looked after herself well and has eaten healthily to keep her weight and blood pressure in check. A marketer’s dream she has bought many, many different products over the years to help reduce her cholesterol, improve her IBS, lower her blood pressure and so on – so called functional foods.

This time however, she was shocked and concerned – after 30 plus years of avoiding salt and buying low sodium alternatives, she has been told by her doctor that she needs to increase her salt intake as “salt is good for you”. Her new “prescription” is a packet of crisps a day!

Well, this bombshell has thrown her into a state of confusion and resulted in her questioning all of her dietary choices. Out with the Flora Pro activ and the Yakult, out too with the Low Salt and the Alpro….she is now enjoying butter, greek yoghurt, sea salt and cow’s milk, hang the consequences.

For the internet generation the mixed messages about what you should and should not eat and drink are even more confusing. Using Google to find out whether or not red wine is good or bad for your health, results in a vast number of results with completely contradictory messages. In 2014, it looks like the main thrust is more anti than pro the health benefits of wine consumption (see chart) but who is to know whether this picture will not change again in a few years.

Source: BonAppetit.com

Source: BonAppetit.com

As the chart shows there has been a lack of consistency about the health benefits of wine over the years. Has this had an impact on wine consumption? A quick initial analysis of data from the ONS Living cost and Food survey does appear to show that there has been a change in wine consumption over the same time period suggesting that the health messaging might be having some impact. While the data in the chart below shows that wine consumption has increased by 67% since 1992 (earliest year of data available), the peak year was in 2007 and consumption has decreased by 10% since that point.

We then looked at other food types, comparing changes in level of consumption with a proxy for confusing health messages, to see if any patterns arise.

For speed in this case we have compared the number of good and bad health messages about each type of food on Google web search. While not perfect by any means it does at least indicate the degree of confusion about the health benefits of each food type. So for example, comparing numbers of good vs bad health messages about green vegetables results in a ‘health score’ of 4550 i.e., there are very few negative messages about green vegetables on the web in comparison with messages about their virtues. Compare this with the same calculation for ready meals which results in a score of 0.0021 – in other words, there are very few positive messages about the health benefits of ready meals. Wine, fruit, fish, pizza, eggs and bread all have a score of around 5, ie, there are more mixed messages about the health benefits of each; a score of 4 or less means that the health messages are more consistently negative – butter, salt, sugar, red meat and of course, ready meals fall into this category.

Charlotte Blog Graph 2

Source: ONS Living Costs and Food Survey/Google Websearch/Trajectory

The above chart shows the change in consumption between 1974 and 2013 for a range of different food types and compares it with this health score.  The data does appear to show that the health messaging is having some impact – those food types with lower scores ie, those that are more consistently portrayed as being bad for you, are most likely to have declined. And those with higher scores are more likely to have increased. The obvious anomalies are of course green vegetables and ready meals – despite being consistent health heroes or anti-heroes, their consumption levels have changed in the opposite direction, bucking the trend.

This reminds us that no single trend can be looked at in isolation, convenience, price, cultural trends and so on all have a huge impact too on what we eat and drink.

Data for the above chart can be found in the ONS Living Costs and Food Survey