Food shopping used to be easy. We’d choose the things we liked the best, or the kids liked, or the partner liked; balance that with cost and that would be that. Job done.
Now, getting the week’s food feels a whole lot more complicated. We need to consider health: is this food going to work if we’re trying to keep an eye on sugar and salt content? Will it work with our allergies and intolerances? We have to also think about environmental issues: how is this food made? what is its impact on the planet; is it natural? What about the packaging?
It all makes for some dilemmas when it comes to eating. Here are a few common everyday dilemmas – and some shortcuts to solving them.
The plastic-wrapped cucumber: food or packaging waste?
This is one we hear about all the time. Why, oh why is every individual cucumber encased in its own plastic condom-like piece of waste? Why can’t we just buy a cucumber the way nature intended it, minus the plastic?
The answer, it seems, is that although those cukes seem to have a hard skin, they’re actually pretty delicate.
Kiri Hannifin, Countdown’s General Manager Corporate Affairs, Safety and Sustainability, says “The skin on a telegraph cucumber is wrapped because it is so thin that it would likely only last one or two days without protection.”
This, Hannifin says, is where the supermarkets have to look at a trade-off between plastic waste and food waste. And the latter is the one that potentially has a worse impact.
“Generally, the reason food is packaged in plastic is because we’re trying to keep it safe and fresh and prevent food waste, which can actually be worse for the environment than plastic, because it produces methane gas as it rots in the rubbish or landfill,” she says.
Globally, a third of the food the world produces is going to waste and in New Zealand, Kiwis are throwing out more than 157,000 tonnes of food at home each year.
While Countdown, as with other supermarkets, has a food rescue programme, “the best thing we can do to reduce food waste in a supermarket is to sell what we bring in”, Hannifin says.
“Anything we can do to ensure food stays fresher for longer is a great help to prevent this sort of waste.”
So what’s the solution for the shopper?
Well, the cucumber wrapper can be recycled with your other soft plastics, being collected at some supermarkets around the country. Or if that’s just too hard, you could change your cucumber style.
“A lebanese cucumber is much more sturdy”, says Hannifin, “so it doesn’t need the same kind of treatment.”
Almond milk: plant-power or nutritionally bereft?
Almond milk – along with its many companions on the non-dairy “milk” shelf – has exploded in popularity in the past year or two. No one blinks an eye in cafes now if you ask for a nutty latte and the choices on supermarket shelves are extensive. In the UK, almond milk has overtaken soy milk as the dairy alternative of choice.
But what of nutrition? We’re told almond milk is mostly water; that it doesn’t have the nutrition of cow’s milk, specifically protein and calcium, unless these are added in. Isn’t it a highly processed food in that case? Would we be better off sticking to one-ingredient cow juice?
Nutritionist and dietitian Angela Berrill is familiar with this internal debate.
“This might seem like an easy switch for those looking to go more plant-based in their diets,” she says. “But it might not be.”
We need to look at the big picture when it comes to any decisions like this, she says, to decide how things fit into our lives, taking into account things like cost and social factors as well as nutrition. Cow’s milk might not be fashionable right now but there’s no doubt it’s an inexpensive source of protein and calcium.
Whole almonds are also very good for us. They’re high in vitamin E and higher in calcium than other nuts and they contain healthy fats, fibre and protein. But in most almond milks the almond content can be as low as 2 per cent; it’s typically around 3-4 per cent. We’re basically getting almond-flavoured water.
Almond milk may also contain added sugar, to make it more palatable – something dairy milk does not have. It pays to have a close look at the ingredients list to suss this one out.
The environmental aspect of this decision might not be clear-cut, either. Almond production in California has attracted concern because of the huge amount of water required to grow the nuts, potentially depleting the area’s groundwater.
What’s the best way to go, then?
If you’re not allergic to cow’s milk and you like the taste, old-fashioned dairy milk is a great option, says Berrill. Especially if you’re buying for kids, who need the calcium to help their bones develop.
If dairy allergy or lactose intolerance is an issue, almond milk can be an alternative.
“Make sure you look for the highest protein content you can find,” says Berrill, “Ideally, choose one with added calcium and no added sugar.”
Plant-based meat: meat-free nirvana or processed nightmare?
New Zealanders are eating less red meat than we used to. Our lamb consumption is down 70 per cent since 1990, for example. The recent Bayer Food Focus Survey found 20 per cent of respondents said they ate mostly vegetarian and a further 10 per cent described themselves as vegan. Eight per cent said they were “flexitarian”.
Along with eating more chicken, that means we’re actively seeking out alternatives to red meat, including vegetarian and vegan proteins. Countdown says the percentage of vegan customers in its stores has doubled in the last year and demand for vegan and vegetarian chilled foods increased by 36 per cent in the past year. Meat-free is having a moment.
Kiwis are increasingly interested in social and environmental issues, says Deb Sue, Countdown’s dietitian. This is driving purchasing behaviour. In trolleys now we might find Beyond Meat burgers; Sunfed “chicken-free chicken”, fish-free fillets and vegan Trumpets.
“We’ve also seen a surge of interest in vegan cheese,” says Sue. They’re up 50 per cent across all vegan cheese products in the past year, with some new products showing around 300 per cent growth.
Sales of vegan icecream have more than doubled in the past year. (This signals a true long-term food trend to me. When they start making junk food featuring a claim, it’s here to stay. Just look at gluten-free.)
But is a meat-free protein really a better option, nutritionally or environmentally?
Berrill says there are definitely benefits to eating a more plant-based diet. “But ideally that diet would be whole and less processed”, she says.
“When we look at some of the alternative proteins, they’re heavily, heavily processed in order to replicate meat. Plus you’re getting all sorts of additives, as you do in other processed foods.”
The Beyond Burger, for example, has 20 ingredients listed on the label and it’s higher in salt and saturated fat than an equivalent piece of beef.
Environmentally, too, it’s a toss-up. If the meat-free protein is imported, it adds food miles to its impact. And we know that New Zealand produces meat with a lower carbon footprint than any other country in the world.
But if we really want to eat fewer animals, what can we do?
Berrill says the answer lies in whole foods. “Look at things like legumes”, she says, referring to beans, chickpeas and lentils. “They can be the base of a really healthy plant-based meal.”
And Countdown says the environmental issue might be countered by local producers getting in on the meat-free protein act too, citing Minced by The Craft Meat Company and Sunfed Chicken as examples, although these are made here from imported ingredients.
Whatever we choose, we might expect to see new descriptions of these foods in future. The EU has called time on plant-based producers naming their foods with animal-based names like milk, cheese and burgers. Purely plant-based products can no longer be sold in Europe using these terms, which are now reserved for products of animal origin.
Low-calorie icecream: guilt-free treat or gut buster?
If you’ve cast your eye into the icecream freezer of late, you won’t have missed the rash of products marketed as “guilt-free” treats: icecreams proudly trumpeting their calorie counts on the front of the tub. Some imply you can easily eat the whole thing and not worry you’re getting tonnes of sugar and excess energy.
So are these treats really worth choosing instead of an occasional scoop or two of full-cream, old-fashioned hokey pokey?
Nutritionist Claire Turnbull is worried about what’s in the low-sugar icecream so sugar doesn’t have to be.
“They often contain alternative sweeteners, especially the ones known as sugar alcohols. They’re not sugary but they taste sweet,” she says.
For some, though, these can cause real problems they might not have seen coming.
“These sweeteners – the ones ending in ‘ol’ – are a real trigger for gut symptoms in people who are prone to IBS,” Turnbull says. “The problem with eating even just a couple of scoops of icecream, say, is that you’re getting a lot of them – and they might cause pain and diarrhoea. I’ve heard of people having to have a day off sick because they’ve had a reaction from it and suffered some nasty consequences.” Eating a whole tub, she says, “could be a bit of a disaster”.
If it feels like that’s not worth it, there is a solution; but it involves being pretty mindful when we eat.
“If you’re craving icecream, have a proper one,” says Berrill. “Tune in to your enjoyment and be mindful of the eating experience. Don’t have a lesser version of something that leaves you unsatisfied.”
Low-carb beer: a triumph or a triumph of marketing?
Now summer is here, it’s hard to avoid the billboards for low-carb beer. Drink this, they subtly promise, to be lighter, fitter, healthier. Low carb beer is experiencing double-digit growth on last year in supermarkets.
But are we barking up the wrong tree thinking we’ll avoid a beer belly with low-carb beer?
Yes, says Turnbull. “The problem with beer is not really the carbs,”, she says. “It’s the alcohol. People are thinking they’re doing a good thing going for a low-carb option, when beer is pretty low in carbs and sugar anyway.”
The majority of the calories in beer (and wine, for that matter) come from alcohol, rather than from carbs. If that low-carb beer still has the same alcohol content as the regular one, the difference in calories is minimal.
On the other hand, if we choose low-alcohol beer we could be on to a winner – and there are more of these to choose from than ever before, according to Hannifin.
“The range and selection in our low-alcohol section has grown by more than 30 per cent over the last nine months,” she says, as more options have become available from both local and overseas suppliers.
We can thank the Millennials for this – they’re driving the trend of drinking less than their parents’ and grandparents’ generations.
So drink less beer or drink low-alcohol, just don’t drink more, says Berrill – and ignore the low-carb versions. “They definitely have an undeserved health halo.”