Hippocrates, the father of medicine, long ago uttered a timeless truth: “Let your food be thy medicine and medicine thy food”. This advice is simple and quite logical, but staying true to it today is harder than ever. A lot of time has passed since this thought has been said, the environment we live in is completely different and our lives have become much more complex in so many ways. First of all, the work we do has changed: from physical and manual work to static jobs that are reduced to full-time sitting in front of the screen. As everyday life accelerates, there is less time for people to self-prepare their meals and we are forced to base our health on processed foods that are bought at nearby restaurants or fast food kiosks.
An important consequence of these, as well as other economic, technological and social changes that have been happening since the 1990s, are widespread obesity and associated health problems. A survey conducted by Nielsen shows that Europeans today on average consume 500 calories more than they did 40 years ago. The World Health Organization estimates that global obesity has more than doubled since 1980, and that most of the world’s population lives in countries where obesity is responsible for more fatalities than malnutrition.
When it comes to Eastern Europe, the research shows that the prevalence of obesity is 58%, which is a large percentage compared to average worldwide obesity (38%). In Serbia, this figure reaches 61%, and this is even more alarming given the fact that in the 1990s there were 12% of the population in Serbia considered obese. The survey shows that 58% of Europeans think they are obese, 50% are aware of their obesity, and 45% of them are trying to lose weight. No matter how bad these figures sound, positive trends can still be seen. In Eastern Europe, especially in Serbia, more and more people are aware of their obesity. More importantly, more people are ready to do something about it. There are two ways in which people are trying to reduce weight: exercising and correcting their diet. 84% of Serbs decide to do the latter, and that is a large percentage compared to East Europe and even the world.
An interesting fact is that 77% of Serbs that did the survey say that they would agree to pay more for groceries that do not contain harmful ingredients and 83% of them are ready to pay more for healthy food. This survey shows that Serbs are becoming more educated on their health, that they increasingly demand transparency in labeling the ingredients found in the food they buy and that they are paying more attention and reading these labels before they put a product in their basket.
While sugar taxes will definitely impact specific categories – one other legislative measure that will have broader implications is product labelling. Consumers are already actively looking at labels for more information. They want to know what is going into their food and labelling is key to building brand trust.
What are the Government and food brands doing about this health problem?
Through their behavior, customers and consumers are making it clear that it is important to them to eat food that is healthy and of high quality. Governments around the world, as an important social factor, are already taking clear steps to combat unhealthy foods. The steps that governments are taking are related to, above all, introduction of taxes on products containing harmful ingredients, for example – too much sugar. Governments also focus on the implementation of campaigns and actions aimed at raising awareness of the importance of healthy eating. The incentive for such a proactive approach from the state does not come only from its citizens. There is a clear financial incentive, given the fact that an obese citizen costs more than a healthy one. It is estimated that the problem of obesity of the population, through health care and productivity loss, costs the EU about 70 million dollars annually.
Countries and their governments, as well as the citizens themselves, are sending clear signals to food brands. By listening to these signals, and going forward with a logic of their own profit, these brands are increasingly creating new strategies for the further development of their products.
But one thing that must remain central to companies’ efforts is AUTHENTICITY. Consumers want to ensure that companies are not just making claims of health and wellness to sell more product – they want claims and efforts to be genuine. Across East Europe, almost two in three consumers (56%) believe health claims are just a way for food and beverage companies to charge more money – there is healthy sceptism out there – so incredibly important to deliver on health proposition.
Since different and complex factors have contributed to the creation of a health crisis connected to widespread obesity, many solutions have also been found to overcome it. An important factor in overcoming the health and obesity crisis will surely be the transparency phenomenon that the internet brings us. Organizations that promote physical, spiritual and mental health are spreading their words of wisdom to the public with more ease then ever before. People are increasingly educating themselves and demand more information about food they put into their organism because they are starting to appreciate groceries that are healthy and organic. The profit logic of these changes can contribute to the production of healthier products. An important factor in the process of these transformations will be the actions of Governments that influence companies on a legislative basis. The overall outcome could be a story of a health crisis that ended with a revolution in nutrition and a massive “healing” of the people.