The pickiness epidemic: When eating right goes wrong

Fad food boom

People are getting pickier about what they eat and smart food marketers are jumping on board.

Perception has always played a pivotal role in food retailing, but for decades food companies felt confident they alone were shaping these perceptions. In recent years they have had to cater to a swelling band of health-conscious consumers cutting down on fat, sugar and salt. Now the perceptions of food buyers are being shaped by a new force – fears that food additives and processes are ruining their health.

In April this year, PepsiCo announced the removal of the artificial sweetener aspartame (more familiar as NutraSweet or Equal) from its diet cola drinks in the US, replacing it with sucralose in Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi and Wild Cherry Diet Pepsi. At the time a PepsiCo spokesperson admitted “aspartame is the number one reason consumers are dropping diet soda”.

The Pepsi news arrived in the same week that US restaurant chain Chipotle Mexican Grill withdrew GMOs (genetically modified organisms) from its menu.

Aspartame and GMO foods share a common trait with the flavour enhancer MSG (monosodium glutamate): many consumers believe them dangerous even though they have been extensively researched and deemed safe by a solid consensus of scientists and regulators.

MSG was perhaps the first casualty of widespread food fear. In 1968, this food additive was identified as the culprit in a dubious condition known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. Reported symptoms included headache, sweating, numbness or a burning sensation in the mouth, and a sense of swelling. But no study since has found any solid evidence that MSG creates ongoing health problems. 

"The gluten-free retail market in the US was worth US$10.5 billion in 2013, and is predicted to grow to US$15.6 billion in 2016.”

Similarly, aspartame has been the subject of numerous US Food and Drug Administration investigations, and also a 263-page report by the European Food Safety Authority in 2013. All concluded that the powdery sweetener was harmless.

Yet despite this evidence, many consumers aren’t buying it. For a growing number of them, any sort of processed food is simply no longer palatable.

The gluten-sensitivity glut

Philosopher Alan Levinovitz has been charting this shift in collective consciousness. In his book The Gluten Lie: and Other Myths About What You Eat, he says that it’s understandable for businesses to take advantage of the landscape.

“Companies give people what they want, and businesses are always happy to provide more expensive options for their customers,” he writes. “Sometimes it seems like predatory behaviour, but a lot of these companies are just holding up a mirror.”

The gluten-free market is cashing in on consumers who don’t feel good about eating gluten (eradicating gluten is the bedrock of the paleo diet, for example). A 2013 survey reported that more than 100 million Americans were trying to cut down on gluten (proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale). 

According to market research firm Mintel, in 2010, 13.9 per cent of new food labels in the US claimed to be gluten-free. Four years later that figure had risen to 23.6 per cent. The gluten-free retail market in the US was worth US$10.5 billion in 2013, and is predicted to grow to US$15.6 billion in 2016. 

Tellingly, Walmart now devotes a section of its supermarkets to gluten-free products, and Coles has created its own gluten-free range in Australia.

This rejection of gluten is perhaps the most visible symptom of a larger trend. Jessica Lamisere, trend and innovation consultant for Mintel, says that there is an overall mistrust of the ingredients and processes used by large food companies. Fuelled by self-styled online experts and celebrity endorsements (such as gluten-free tennis player Novak Djokovic, whose dog, Pierre, also has a gluten-free diet), many customers are shopping differently.

People are becoming scared of things that are in their food, so there is a push to go back to eating the way our grandparents did,” Lamisere says. “Every week there seems to be another food ingredient that’s making people fat, miserable or sick, and fewer people seem to be trusting doctors, nutritionists and dietitians.”

Companies that innovate and are quick to adapt will thrive, Lamisere says. “Where there is room to provide healthier options, that’s where there’s success. Companies with nimble operations that can offer these products when they’re becoming popular, and not years after the trend starts, can see a lot of success.”

In the meantime, consumers are turning to social media and online forums where bloggers and others offer a constant stream of dietary advice. “People are listening to what Instagram or YouTube celebrities are saying,” notes Lamisere, “and often these people have very little or no nutritional training.”

Levinovitz is perplexed that the term gluten-free has become synonymous with healthy. He points out that the gluten sensitivity called coeliac disease is a serious problem affecting about 1 per cent of the population, but that most people still enjoy foods containing gluten. And he notes that good nutrition science relies on the cautious, slow accumulation of data, not a solitary study that pops up on your Facebook news feed overnight.

“A lot of pop doctors out there are saying that gluten causes Alzheimer’s, it causes cancer, it causes ADHD and autism,” he says. “These are simply false claims, and it’s important for people to understand that.”

The search for righteousness

The “pop doctors”, as Levinovitz labels them, are headed by Dr William Davis, author of the book Wheat Belly, and Dr David Perlmutter, co-author of Grain Brain. Both argue that gluten is linked to a range of serious conditions. 

Levinovitz and many health researchers are concerned that these two bestsellers have legitimised isolated and limited research. “These doctors scare the crap out of the reader and then tell them that they have the solution,” he says.

Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religious studies at Virginia’s James Madison University, also notes that the idea of strict dietary rules and rituals has been a feature of many religions. “Look at things like cleansing diets. A lot of that is about people trying to make themselves pure, righteous and good,” he points out.

But the search for dietary righteousness is beginning to suffer its own publicity problems. Self-proclaimed “wellness warrior” Jess Ainscough died in February after seven years of trying to treat her rare cancer nutritionally. Belle Gibson, who developed The Whole Pantry smartphone app, attracted derision after it was revealed she had lied about having brain cancer. 

Last year, paleo diet fan and Australian My Kitchen Rules host Pete Evans rekindled claims that gluten is behind a rise in autism. This year, publishers Macmillan dumped his paleo cookbook for mums and babies after nutritionists and doctors condemned the celebrity chef’s suggestion that his bone broth baby formula was a suitable breast milk substitute. But despite the controversies, dietary fads – including paleo – are proving resilient.

“Where there is room to provide healthier options, that’s where there’s success.” Jessica Lamisere, Mintel

Meanwhile, the newly de-aspartamed PepsiCo and rival Coca-Cola are trying a different sweetener, stevia. They have been careful to play up its natural qualities, promoting it with pictures of the plant from which it is extracted. The stevia-sweetened drinks, Coke Life and Pepsi Next, even come with green labels. Maybe, just maybe, that will help.

When eating right goes wrong

A fundamentalist approach to food creates fertile ground for an eating disorder. That explains the rise of orthorexia nervosa, an obsession with eating foods that one considers healthy – and it’s anything but healthy.

Rebecca Charlotte Reynolds, a nutrition lecturer at the University of New South Wales, wrote recently that orthorexia occurs when eating “healthily” causes significant distress or negative consequences in a person’s life.

Orthorexia sufferers continually limit the number of foods they eat, may experience a reduced quality of life, are often critical of those who don’t share their healthy eating lifestyle, and feel almost euphoric when they eat the correct diet. 

They are consumed with what types of food they allow themselves to eat, and feel miserable about themselves if they stray from the path.

Orthorexia nervosa is not yet classified as a formal psychological condition, but it is attracting increasing attention.

This article is from the August issue of INTHEBLACK

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