2 Nov 2014

The Cult of Food

From Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum, 4:06 pm on 2 November 2014

Late at the museum Aug Nov crop

Two university professors and two celebrity chefs discuss how New Zealand food has evolved over the last fifty years, argue about the effect of our diet on our health, and share their ideas of the national Kiwi dish with an amused and engaged audience at Auckland Museum.

I heard that Alison Holst wasn’t allowed to cook rice on TV because it was too ethnic

– Jesse Mulligan

Featuring Al Brown, Professor Rod Jackson, Professor Grant Schofield, and Anne Thorp with Jesse Mulligan in the chair.

Smart Talk: Food choice good/food choice bad?

The issue of food choice in a changing New Zealand, and its role in our health, was the subject of disagreement between two leading academics during a panel discussion which opened the Auckland Museum’s Smart Talk series for 2014.

According to Rod Jackson, Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Auckland, New Zealanders are eating better food now than was the case fifty years ago, when choices were much more limited.

“You know you go back to the sixties,” he recalls. “There were two cheeses. There was one milk. And it had a silver top on the bottle. Yoghurt. I’d never heard of it. Does anyone remember when they first had an avocado? For me it was 1977. If you look at what we eat today, it’s completely different from what we had in the sixties and seventies. I mean, it’s a radical change.”

Professor Jackson is convinced that this change has been for the better, citing the significance of the year 1967. It was when the New Zealand death rate from heart disease peaked. “It’s been falling at a rate of 3% per year ever since 1967,” he comments, adding “And that’s the reason we’re gaining six hours of life expectancy per day.”

From his perspective, our completely different diet is improving our life expectancy. Not that the situation is perfect: “The only problem is, we’re eating too much. So we’re all a little bit too fat, but we’re getting fat eating good food.”

Auckland University of Technology Professor of Public Health Grant Schofield doesn’t agree. He concedes that we are living longer, but challenges the assertion that it’s caused by changes to our diet, saying “In the meantime heaps of other things have changed – where we get our food from, our smoking, and medical care and prevention.”

He agrees that cardiovascular disease has fallen since 1967, but suggests that there may numerous reasons for that, and cites the increasing prevalence of cancer, which was once a relatively rare disease, along with diseases of the brain such as dementia and Alzheimers as indicators that not all is well. Furthermore, he says, “We’re seeing the silent one, (Type 2) diabetes and all its complications, running rampant. And those are nutrition-related.”

Thinking of the increased availability of processed food, Professor Schofield draws an analogy with his childhood forty years ago.

“In 1974 in Twizel, Dad put a TV aerial up to get Batman. Adam West. It took a fair bit of effort to get a single TV channel. It also took a fair bit of effort to go and get a bit of processed food or soft drink. You could do it. It just took a bit of effort.”

It’s a different story today, however. “You go and have a look at some kids’ lunch boxes. There’s a massive amount of processed food. To say we’re eating better is rubbish. We need to return to whole actual food.”