Going back to basics

Two Thursdays ago, Minister of Public Health Volda Lawrence launched revised food-based dietary guidelines for Guyana in collaboration with the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN), tweaking and updating those that were established in 2004. With the focus on healthy lifestyles and eating habits and preventing the onset and spread of chronic non-communicable diseases, the guidelines, if heeded, can also go a far way towards protecting and promoting food security.

On April 1, 2016 the UN designated 2016 to 2025 as ‘the decade of action on nutrition’ to bolster the 2015-2030 Sustainable Development Goals, mainly the first three which are: no poverty, zero hunger and good health and well-being. It is a fact that the world needs robust food systems if it is to eradicate hunger, end malnutrition, including obesity and put a dent in the growing number of deaths due to preventable illnesses.

A number of countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have been upgrading and revising their dietary guidelines, especially those that date back later than 2013. But even those that were developed more than five years ago were based on the premise that locally-grown fresh foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, were among the best nutrition choices one could make. For example, Guyana’s 2004 guidelines were presented in the form of a stew pot that held staple foods such as plantain, breadfruit and yam; legumes and nuts like black-eye peas and cashew nuts; vegetables like pak-choi, pumpkin and cucumber; fruits such as mango, guava and pineapple; animal produce like fish, meat and eggs in moderation; and fats and oils to be used sparingly. The guidelines also recommended sustainable and safe farming, hygienic food preparation, exercise and no or low use of alcohol. More likely than not, the new guidelines follow this same path.

With the exception of fruits, nuts and some vegetables, all foods have to be processed in some way. This would include basic processes like butchering, carving, trimming away inedible or unwanted parts, grinding, drying, filtering, pasteurising, boiling and freezing, some of which help to make natural foods safe to consume or suitable for storage. Food preparation sees the addition of substances processed from natural foods such as herbs and spices, oils, butter, sugar and salt. Really, this is as far as anyone should go in terms of processing food. However, a look on the shelves of any local supermarket or grocery shop, even those in the country’s municipal markets, would reveal food items not indigenous to this country, or even this region, in bottles, cans, boxes and packages that can last anywhere from six months to a year and more.

The labels on these items, if one reads the ingredient list, which is usually in fine print, reveal that the contents contain additives some of which are extracted from foods. But there are others like dyes, colour stabilizers, flavours and flavour enhancers. They are manufactured with preservatives: carbonating, firming, bulking and anti-bulking, de-foaming, anti-caking and glazing agents, emulsifiers, sequestrants and humectants some of which are made from synthetic or artificial substances.

These items, particularly those produced by the world’s largest food conglomerates, like Nestle, Coca Cola, Unilever, Kraft Heinz and General Mills, are attractively presented and what’s more pushed onto consumers by way of billions of dollars spent on advertising in newspapers, magazines, on radio, television and online. In fact, according to the online Statistics Portal, Stastista, the most valuable food brand worldwide for 2017 was Nestle, which spent US$191.2 billion on advertising in the United States alone, a huge sum, especially when one considers that the US foreign aid budget for 2017 was US$50.1 billion.

Most of the products which dominate local markets are loaded with added sugar and salt for taste and depleted in dietary fibre, protein and various micronutrients. Examples include sweet, fatty or salty packaged snack products, ice cream, sugar-sweetened beverages, chocolates, confectionery, french fries, burgers, hot dogs, and chicken and fish nuggets. Apart from the taste, their attraction lies in the fact that they are ready-to-eat or just need heating.

But scientists have long established a direct link between the consumption of these ultra-processed foods and obesity and other diet-related non-communicable diseases. According to data from the World Health Organisation, “of 56.4 million global deaths in 2015, 39.5 million, or 70%, were due to non-communicable diseases… The burden of these diseases is rising disproportionately among lower income countries and populations. In 2015, over three quarters of NCD deaths—30.7 million—occurred in low and middle-income countries…”

Apart from the deaths, health care systems are overburdened, and governments have been advised to find ways to promote preventative measures. A path which is highly advocated is going back to basics as far as food consumption is concerned. Obviously, it will not be enough to simply launch new dietary guidelines. The message has to reach people from all walks of life. Ingenuous ways will have to be found, governments will, after all, be competing with advertising dollars pushing tasty, fake food.      

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