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06 September 2006

Obesity: Put calories on till slips

We desperately need to change the corrosive debate over obesity by looking for innovative solutions rather than just scapegoats, says a Danisco business development manager.

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We desperately need to change the corrosive debate over obesity by looking for innovative solutions rather than just scapegoats, says a Danisco business development manager.

Lise Balstrup told FoodNavigator that the current dialogue, which tends to revolve around who is principally to blame, can only move forward when everyone involved accepts a portion of the responsibility and starts to look for solutions together.

"We can continue this blame game for years and years," she said. "But what we really need to do is ask ourselves if there is something we can identify that we can use to tackle obesity together."

Balstrup has one idea. She believes that by harnessing existing technology in an innovative manner, both industry and consumer attitudes towards food purchasing and consumption could be revolutionised.

"There is information on food products about how many calories there are per 100g, but it is how much you eat that counts. What I was wondering was: is there a way around this?"

Balstrup believes there is.

A simple solution
"It could be very simple. What about, after doing your shopping, your calorie count appeared on your receipt? You would then see all the calories you've purchased, and what the total is."

Purchases in the food service sector would be even easier.

"If you go to a fast-food outlet, you really don't know how many calories are in that meal. You might not know that in one sitting, you are getting your day's worth of calories.

"Indeed, although many outlets now say that they provide healthy alternatives, you still don't know how many calories you're consuming. Why not make it simple and put it on the receipt?"

Balstrup is keen to stress that her aim at the moment is merely to change the direction of discussions about obesity by trying to get people to look for possible solutions.

"The idea is to get people discussing obesity along these lines," she said. "Some people think its crazy, while others think it's exactly what's needed.

"But my belief is that we need to look beyond merely teaching good dietary habits. Quite simply, education alone takes too long. We need to look at what new tools we could use - and also what technology consumers use."

The technology exists
The point is that the technology for Balstrup's broad proposal does exist. There is no reason why calories couldn't be totted up as they pass through the barcode at the checkout counter, and be printed onto the receipt at the end. The only consideration is cost.

Many sectors of the food industry would also need some convincing that providing the calorific content of their products would be in their interests. But Balstrup contends that the concept has merit.

"It's a simple idea, and it could be something that people understand," she said. "You know how many miles to the gallon your car runs, and if you see on your bank balance that you've withdrawn lots of money one week, then you'll be more likely to go easier the next."

The same goes for calories, she argues. If you've bought a lot of calories one week, you might be tempted to go easier the next. It would also give people an idea of what they are actually eating. The vast majority of people have no idea how many calories they are regularly consuming.

Challenges and objections
There are of course a number of challenges and objections to such a proposal. Balstrup readily accepts that watching your calorific intake is but one factor in healthy eating, and that everyone has different calorie needs.

"You could have an index of the average calorie intake," she said. "Of course, it will never be correct for everyone, and people will always pop out to the gas station or whatever to buy some sweets.

"But the main purpose behind this is to raise awareness. If we could teach our children that eating too many calories is bad, and that there are certain foods that you should take out of your diet if your calorie count is too high, then this would be a good thing."

Potential is enormous
Balstrup also says that the potential of this technology is enormous. The IT industry, for example, could find a way of accumulating and sending relevant information to your mobile. Calorific counts could be divided up into proteins, fats and carbohydrates.

What's more, IT companies are already working on ways of displaying such information anonymously, and sending it only to those that wish to receive information.

"I would really like to see something like this done, but we need incentives," said Balstrup. "We need to find a solution that is easy, fast and difficult to avoid.

"We also need open discussion. We need to think of ways that will help consumers to better understand what they are eating.

"And I don't think it will be food manufacturers who are best placed to come up with these ideas. I think the main breakthroughs will be working with IT or marketing." - (Decision News Media, September 2006)

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