New Zealand has one of the highest rates of obesity in the world – but how much does advertising have to do with it? Jim Mann is calling for greater government regulations around how food is advertised, especially to children. Lachlan Balfour spoke with Mann about advertising, the difficulty around food and social media, and what the government can do to help people make more informed decisions around their diets.
Jim Mann is a Professor in Human Nutrition and Medicine at the University of Otago. He is an expert in obesity and food-related diseases.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Lachlan Balfour: How are people getting their information about food?
Jim Mann: If they choose to go somewhere reliable they can get very good sensible messages about sensible eating. But the problem is that a lot of people are getting their messages from food manufacturers who are there to make money for their shareholders, or they are getting advice from alternative so-called experts who have some potential for benefiting from their advice. The manufacturers of junk food are telling people, especially kids, that it is wonderful to have high sugar and high fat things that taste good and that is going to give them energy, or for that matter energy drinks, so that is one place. And then the other place is these social media sites or sites you can find on the internet which tell you that the latest kind of diet fad is what is going to make you lose weight, and those sites are either run by some well-meaning misguided people or they are run by people who are going to make a fast buck. Authoritative organisations are putting out good health messages. You can get messages from the Ministry of Health or from various organisations like the Heart Foundation or Diabetes New Zealand, [or] you can get them from these alternative sources as well.
LB: What sort of regulations are there currently for how they advertise and how they portray their product?
JM: Well there are advertising standards. New Zealand, like any other country, has advertising standards and you can complain about people who are getting false advertising. But in general, companies are pretty careful and don’t overstep the mark. And this is really the problem: successive governments have adopted the line that this should all be voluntary, so there are voluntary standards of conduct and the industry should be self-monitoring. But it doesn’t really seem to work. There is a voluntary code that says there are times that kids are in theory watching television so we won’t advertise junk food, but kids don’t just watch television when they are meant to, they watch television when their parents are watching television. The bottom line is there is actually very little control on advertising. I mean, even if you take the health star rating for example, which is an Australia-New Zealand system, which in theory is quite good – on food products you can have a four- or four-and-a-half star product that is meant to be a good product – but even that can be misleading.
LB: How do these ratings actually work?
JM: Conceptually it is a good idea: how do we know whether a breakfast cereal is a good breakfast cereal or not a good breakfast cereal? And so it is an aggregated index of what might be considered generally healthy. So a good idea, [but] why does it fall down? Well, it falls down for two reasons. One is the way the formula works. You can put a lot of fibre in to give it a good score but then you can also put a lot of sugar in and you can keep sugar just low enough but still have a very high sugar product to get that good score. So basically what a company can do is just add more fibre and that allows a lot of sugar to go in. They are looking at that now, they are reviewing this whole system and hopefully they will get a better system. The other thing, of course, is that it is voluntary. If you are a company you are not going to put it on a cereal that is going to get one star because you know that is going to give your cereal a bad name. So if it is really going to be effective it should be compulsory. And the second thing is, at the very least, they need to get round this glitch, which I am sure was not done intentionally by those people that put the rating together but they didn’t think ahead and that is people were going to try and work the system, which they clearly are. Maybe we will have a better health star rating in a few years’ time but unfortunately these things take a long time to change.
LB: Do you think more people are picking up these diets that we don’t really know a lot about in the long term because of social media?
JM: I think social media contributes an enormous amount because you have some people going on to social media saying ‘This [diet] is fantastic, I lost twenty kilograms through going on a Keto [low carb] diet’ and I don’t disbelieve that at all. I know people who have lost twenty kilograms on a Keto diet, but what I am saying is, is that for the majority of them it doesn’t last, there are other ways to achieving weight loss which are healthier, which have been shown to have long term benefit and which are not potentially risky.
LB: Do you think this is somewhere the government needs to step in?
JM: Well, it is very difficult to step into this. I have no evidence that it is harmful, I am just saying we have no evidence it is doing any good. We have some evidence that people have developed very high cholesterol levels on a high Keto diet, there are so many unknowns, but I cannot see government stepping in in terms of the Keto diet just yet. I think the main thing that I would go for around the Keto diet is that I think there are false claims being made for it, because, as I say, there is no long term evidence that it works for a lot of people. It works for some people, I have seen people do well on it but there are some other things the government could be doing immediately.
LB: What are these things?
JM: Well, the main thing I would like to see is a compulsory school program being introduced because we have got a lot of evidence left over from the last Labour government where schools that introduced the HEHA Program have maintained it and have actually had great results when they have stuck to this program. So I would like to see that introduced immediately and I think there would be enormous support from the public for that.
LB: What is the HEHA Program?
JM: The last Labour government introduced this program called Healthy Eating, Healthy Action which was a compulsory healthy lifestyle program for schools. So you couldn’t have junk food served in schools, there was a big program about introducing school gardens, the program extended beyond the schools into the communities associated with the schools, there was a physical activity element built around it, and it was compulsory. So schools for example could not send their kids out to sell chocolates in the neighbourhood to raise money. It was an overall package that was abandoned by the last National government within a couple of weeks of it coming into power in 2008. It was not even evaluated, we were not even allowed to evaluate it. So that is the kind of program we want to see again and the government has said that they are working on such a program but we do not know the extent to which it would be compulsory, we have not actually seen it yet, and we can only hope that it can be good. The benefits of this are not just to the school kids themselves but it radiates out into their family, the community at large, and it was a pretty good program overall.
LB: Is the issue also that a lot of unhealthy food is just so much cheaper than healthy food and more accessible?
JM: There has been a lot of work done looking at the price of food, and from what I can gather, the one food that really comes into the category of not great food that is cheaper is fish and chips. I mean, you can have healthy fish and chips but cheap fish and chips when you get more batter, that can be cheaper in many places. But on the whole, the other convenience food is not necessarily cheaper in dollar terms, where it is particularly attractive to a number of people, particularly people who are not well off is that it is cheaper in terms of time. If you have got families where parents are doing more than one job, food preparation can take time, and that I think is a problem. So if you are a mum or dad who has got kids, you finish one job, you have to then feed your kids and then go to another job then it may well be advantageous. So it is not so much in the dollar terms as in the actual time. If you have got the time to cook up decent food you can actually do it quite cheaply.