When lunch is served, do you hear requests from around the table for, “80g of rice, 50ml dal or 60g salad? And is there a weighing scale on the table to do your bidding? You don’t ask and there isn’t a scale. However at the grocery store you do ask for 5kg rice or cooking oil. Is there a difference in these two requests? For every human activity there is – originally – an intent and purpose.
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Buying food is different from serving food. Commodity buying as we call it is buying rice, oil, and dal, for the household to last a week or month. So also, retail buying of pre-packaged foods is by weight or volume; e.g. 250g sugar, 100g biscuits or 1Litre milk. The “purchase intent” here is the food being eaten or shared the household. When food is served to individuals, we customarily (and traditionally) ask for a plate of rice, bowl of dal, eat 2 biscuits or drink a cup of coffee. You notice immediately the switch from net weights to use of household terms, like “bowl, katori, plate or cup” signifying the quantity we eat or drink. So the big question is, whether nutrition information is for the household or the individual. Behaviour change begins with individuals.
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Nutrition is a personal thing; each one has different food habits, needs, likes and dislikes. You can standardize foods, but you cannot standardize consumers. Consumer behaviours must be fostered not forced. Food is not merely eaten for physiological reasons; it is often consumed to satisfy emotional and psychological needs. Don’t we often consume more cups of tea at office than we would at home; a psychological routine for bonding? On being scolded by our parents have we not thrown a highly effective tantrum by refusing to eat, seeking emotional attention? Nutrition is about diets; individual foods make up diets and more of different foods are better than more of the same food. Reducing more (servings) of the same food or repeating it every day is key.
The traditional Indian thali is a brilliant example of per serving; seven to ten katoris from sweets to soup are served. Once served the only option is asking for an additional katori of rice or 2 puris; there is conscious pause before the request for “more of the same”. This is nutrition information in action; pure and simple. Consumers will always eat for taste. Appetizing thalis with regional delicacies (Gujarati, South Indian, Maharashtrian); even fish thali along the Konkan coastline are available Serving size is about eating food for enjoyment and not with abandon. Nutrition was imbibed unobtrusively through measured servings. Unlike today, mathematical calculations and serving size manipulations overpower the discourse on nutrition policy. The mantra here is about “consumer interest” and its not the same as getting consumers interested. We have been consuming sauce, pickle, papad, butter, ghee, bread, meat, fish, and egg for the past 100 years. What has changed; packaging?
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Nutrition labelling is merely a tool and a passive one presently. Its sole purpose is to create behaviour change. All other considerations are sub-sets; unnecessary details confuse. Let’s demonstrate this through three label examples (illustrative purposes only).
Barfi (milk sweet).
At the bottom of the Nutrition Panel the maximum amounts for a healthy diet are provided. A 2000 kcal dietary energy is the standard reference value from which the amount of nutrient intakes such as fat, sugar etc. is derived.
How does one begin to apply nutrition information to daily food habits? Focus on the per serve amounts as declared; this is smallest unit of consumption of the product. If you eat more than one serve, all you need to do is double the values. You begin to understand how more of the same (serving) adds on more calories, fat or sugar.
Identify foods with similar quantities of sugar per serving? For example these foods provide sugar.
☐ 4 cubes chocolate 13g ☐ 1 piece Barfi 16g ☐ 100ml carbonated beverage 11g
☐ A serving of these foods are approximately 3-4 teaspoons of sugar.
☐ In time foods with similar amounts of sugar begin to register;
☐ You are likely to reach the maximum sugar intake if you eat all three foods or more servings on a daily basis.
Labels typically provide this comparison information by giving the percentage contributed by the food product to the daily values. While individual needs may vary, according to age, gender and physical activity, these values are only for guidance when reading nutrition information on food labels. A picture is worth a thousand words; build a fat, sugar, salt control chart; paste it in your kitchen or refrigerator; it should look like this:
Over a period of time you will understand how foods influence your daily diets; particularly at weekends when one likes to ‘chill out’ after a hectic week at work. Diets are not modifiable by diktat, nor standardized.
Policymakers should immerse themselves in consumer behaviors. Years back while observing an active consumer research session on ‘a brilliant innovation” – we thought we had – of providing a 30ml bottle dispenser for cooking oil, thereby restricting visible oil use to 28g per person (for nutritional purposes); we received a most surprising push back. The worthy group had this to say “you have no idea the very short time we have to get meals ready; every second counts; there is no time for your elaborate contraption”. We never marketed that gadget; a lesson was learned.
Shoppers have no time for elaborate calculations of what 100g or 100ml means to their daily nutrition; serving size is the only way they will connect. It’s never too late to learn.