Cafe Scientifique: A call for education and consumer choice

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

  • With a high number of attendees, it was audience members who asked the hard questions.

    With a high number of attendees, it was audience members who asked the hard questions.

Written by Abigel Lemak


Last nights Cafe Scientifique was packed in the cozy setting of Holiday Inn, where the passion of audience members generated the conversation, as they sought real answers for hard questions.

Monday, Feb. 25, the first part of Cafe Scientifique took place titled, The Future of Food: Advancing Health and Food Security with Prof. Rickey Yada, Department of Food Sciences. The evenings host, Dr. Sylvain Charlebois, directed the questions. The most poignant questions, however, seemed to come from the audience as their passion for the socio-economic issues concerning food came through. 

The major focus of the night turned out to be the science of food and how it affects our behaviour as consumers. Yada noted an important paradigm shift in the food industry world, where before it was food companies that shaped products, today, it’s consumer driven. This shift puts a new challenge to food scientists: how to maintain balance between quality, choice, and sustainability? 
The union between food and sustainability has been a recent one.

“Issues [of] supply around commodities for the food industries, getting enough of product x to process, [have resulted in] shortages because of climate changes where areas which were traditionally flushed with water were no longer flushed with water,” said Yada. “We are now talking about sustainability of civilizations and civil society.” 

“Here we are in a world now that has extremes,” said Yada. “We have the extremes of chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, obeisity, cardio-vascular [and] there are areas in the world where we can’t get enough food to.”

Despite what mainstream news would have us believe, Yada says it all comes down to moderation as people can’t always eat healthy foods.

“We eat food for more than just nutrition purposes,” said Yada. “We also eat for celebrative purposes.”

Thanks to marketing and a failure of our education system, many consumers are confused in their quest to lead healthy lived and buy into functional foods that are pumped with nutraceuticals, ingredients that have alleged health properties. Another shift in consumer markets can be seen in a movement from curative healthcare to a preventative styled approach. Today, consumers seek preventative measures against osteoporosis in calcium enriched orange juice. There is a naivety on how these ingredients work, said Yada, where in fact these ingredients work better on some more than others. 

Food now, more than ever is linked to the health industry: one that is a huge cost to the government and growing. A recent challenge to food scientists includes at validating the health claims these food companies make for their products. 

Yada claims it all comes down to education and empowering people to make the proper, healthy decisions when it comes to food. 

An audience member asks what to do in the face of marketing campaigns that are aimed at certain marginalized socio-economic groups who can’t afford the foods that are considered healthy or can’t access the kinds of education useful against food ads. 

“My home province of Quebec has implemented a policy years ago [to combat food ads] around children [in] not advertising soda and bad products to children,” said Charlebois. “However, the policy is not very efficient as children do not only listen to french television, they listen to english, American-based television.”   

Both speakers seems unable to offer a solution to the issue of ads aimed at specific groups for the benefit of these food companies and to the detriment of their consumers. 
Yada revisits the issue of a consumers desire for choice rather than to be lectured to, suggesting a need to control the fat contents of these harmful foods. He also notes that it comes down to the cost structure of food, where pop costs more than milk.

“One of the most difficult things for human beings is behaviour change,” said Yada. 
Beyond behaviour change lies the greater issue of integrity of food labels and companies. 
“One way to educate consumers is through proper labeling,” said Charlebois. “But now, the information on labels --with GMO foods, food fraud and fish [lately in the news]-- the question is should consumers believe that we are trying to empower and educate them?”

Yada calls for a critical mind. In an age of an abundance of information we need to learn how to learn to read through labels and labels themselves need to work on communicating more effectively and truthfully with consumers. 

“This is a problem of resources and finances,” said Yada. 

Especially in the case of GMO products and the secrecy in labelling and notifying the public about the products they’re eating, the government needs to push policies that encourage companies to properly label their foods. GMO products are often sold as substantially equivalent to non-GMO products, but in truth the long term health effects of these new products have yet to be revealed, and labeling offers the consumer a choice of that risk. 

In the meantime, it all seems to come down to the power consumers hold in their purchasing ability. 


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