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A series of panel discussions recorded before an audience at the Auckland Museum

Smart Talk at the Auckland Museum: Food in New Zealand

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.”

More about the participants

Al Brown courtesy of Auckland MuseumAl Brown

Al Brown is a chef and restaurateur. Al’s approach to cooking is all about simplicity and generosity. His dishes deliver uncomplicated excellence and showcase the culinary landscape of New Zealand. In Al’s opinion, food is the vehicle for conversation, fun and memorable occasions.

National dish: The fritter. Al's favourite is a paua fritter, but says they're also good made with mussels, tuatua, pipi, and whitebait.


Prof Rod Jackson courtesy of Auckland MuseumRod Jackson

Rod Jackson is a professor of epidemiology at the University of Auckland. He teaches clinical and public health epidemiology to students and health professionals. He has over 30 years of research experience in Cardiovascular Disease (CVD) epidemiology, and is one of the architects of New Zealand risk-based clinical guidelines for managing CVD risk. For the past 15 years his research has been based around using web-based decision support tools linked to regional and national electronic health databases to implement, monitor and improve CVD risk assessment and management.

National dish: Bread, bread, and bread (and chicken with pasta and veges). Rod says New Zealand's meal would contain lots of bread. It's the food group we get most of our energy from. We probably round it out with chicken and serve it with pasta, or grains and veges. He's not sure it would be our best national dish, but it's what we eat.

Jesse Mulligan courtesy of Auckland MuseumJesse Mulligan

Jesse Mulligan is a writer, comedian and TV presenter. He writes restaurant reviews for Metro magazine, and has written a number of food travel stories for national newspapers and magazines. He's a keen home chef, and spent several years working in the food industry in London, marketing organic and luxury food brands to the British press. He is the host of TV One's Best Bits.

National dish: Bluff oysters. Jesse picks Bluff oysters because they reflect our proximity to the sea, as well as our polarised opinions. "Half the country love them, and the other half hate them. What a perfect analogy."

Professor Grant Schofield courtesy of Auckland MuseumGrant Schofield

Grant Schofield is Professor of Public Health, and Director of the Human Potential Centre at AUT Millennium. His research and teaching interests range from understanding and improving lifestyle behaviours such as sleep, nutrition, and physical activity, to wellbeing epidemiology, to human performance. Professor Schofield takes a "think outside the box" approach to his work in tackling the big health problems of our times. He is known for "challenging current beliefs" in his field.

National dish: Roast lamb cooked with butter and served with veges. Grant would serve up lamb and butter for his national dish. As well as reflecting our farming heritage and being the mainstay of our economy, a good lamb roast is a whole-food meal that was recently alive and not tickered with too much.

Ann Thorp courtesy of Auckland MuseumAnne Thorp

Anne Thorp's television show, Kai Ora, is currently screening on Sky’s Food Channel. Of Ngāti Awa and Ngāi Te Rangi descent, Anne’s heritage defines her. Manaakitanga is a powerful Maori concept, which simply means hospitality, a generosity of spirit. She promotes simple, fresh, healthy food using the best produce NZ has to offer. Anne has been the guest chef on P&O cruise ships for Carnival Australia, has authored her own cookbook and currently hosts at iconic SPQR Restaurant on Ponsonby Road, Auckland.

National dish: Pork bones and puha. Anne reckons that for tangata whenua you can't beat pork bones and puha, the nostalgic dish of her childhood. "It's far easier to prepare than the daunting hangi, and watercress is a delicious substitute for puha."