Each year, respected global consultancy New Nutrition Business publishes a report assessing the key food trends for the year. Here is their most recent list, on which I asked local nutrition experts Ben Warren, Diane Stride and Hazel Thomas to comment.

The first thing each emphasises is that each person has individual needs, and different food choices will be appropriate.

Indeed, Diane objects to the entire list concept. “It is very difficult for me to endorse a list like this … the focus on a lot of these things listed below, actually drives disordered eating in men and women. Over the past five years, the rate of eating disorders has doubled. Making more and more rules around food I actually believe is detrimental and I am seeing more and more clients developing disordered eating and bordering eating disorders as a result of starting off with ‘trying to eat healthily’.” 

With those warnings, here are the leading consumer food trends.

Digestive wellness: greater appreciation of ‘gut health’ and the value of achieving it. Hazel and Ben agree with this as #1 for improving health.

Plant-based diets: more and more people (especially Millennials) are trying to reduce their meat intake. Watch out Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmers! That said, Ben sees a continuing opportunity for HB’s grass-fed protein. Diane, referring to other environmental concerns, notes: “I don’t believe the answer is simply ‘stop eating meat’. When you look at the amount of plastic consumption around non-meat food items, I don’t think it is that clear cut.”

Protein: regaining respect as an important element of a healthy diet. Ben regards hemp as “by far the best plant-sourced protein”. 

Sugar: more and more the villain. Not only with respect to overall wellbeing, but even more focus on dental health. Says Hazel: “I tell my clients that sugar is an antinutrient since it provides zero nutritional value.” Here in New Zealand, perhaps growing support for a sugar tax? Ben favours taking GST off healthy food items to stimulate uptake. 

Good carbs, bad carbs: careful eaters are becoming more discriminating about where they get their carbs.

Fragmentation and personalisation: with respect to diet, people’s motivation for improvement varies. For most, looking good appears to count more than maintaining health. As Ben says: “People are more motivated by now as opposed to the future … how do I look now as opposed to how am I going to feel in the future?” His answer: use both to motivate. 

Snackification: people like to indulge and they like convenience; hence the blossoming of the ‘indulgent snack’. Every food company is joining this bandwagon.

Creative beverages: driven by fear of sugar. Liquid nutraceuticals anyone? Hazel warns against too much of the trendy kombucha: “The drink contains wild yeast and other bugs, too much of a good thing doesn’t always equate to good health.” Ben broadens the trend, disapprovingly: “It’s already here. Just look at the supermarket aisles, most of the aisles in the supermarket are synthesised food.” 

Fat reborn: hallelujah, there are ‘good fats’. Hazel laments: “Why did it take so long?! … Healthy fats are needed to maintain cell membranes, transport cholesterol from the liver to support cellular repair, to make hormones and for the insulation of nerve cells. Fats are needed to absorb fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) and so much more!”

Authenticity and provenance: more and more, the story behind the food matters, and not just to upmarket consumers. Great news for Hawke’s Bay if we play our cards right.

How many of these trends does your own diet reflect? 

It’s not really a food trend, but Hazel would also place stress management on this list because of the strong adverse effects stress has on gut health. Speaking of which …

Gut health

With respect to this list, the ‘new kid on the block’ is the first item – gut health, an area of blossoming research and insight.

Ben cites Hippocrates: “All disease begins in the gut.” Hippocrates ‘got it’, but it has taken science a long time to catch up and understand why.

What’s going on in our gut – our microbiome – affects our entire wellbeing, physical, mental, emotional. Our gut is home to about 100 trillion microorganisms … that’s 10 times more bacteria, hundreds of species, than all the human cells in the body, and referred to as our ‘gut flora’.

Our gut flora promotes normal gastrointestinal function, provides protection from infection, regulates metabolism and comprises more than 75% of our immune system.

Basically, we need more ‘good’ bacteria and fewer of the ‘bad’. For example, some bacteria fight inflammation, others promote it; in a healthy gut, they keep each other in check. The ‘good’ bacteria protect the intestinal lining, ensuring an effective barrier against toxins, limiting inflammation, assisting absorption of nutrients from food, and helping serotonin production (the ‘good hormone’!). The bad? Think campylobacter, as in Havelock disaster.

Some refer to the gut as the ‘second brain’, given its neural complexity and importance in managing key functions, including instructing the brain. Indeed Ben notes that “the gut is talking to the brain more than the brain is talking to the body”.

An unhealthy gut, by disrupting vital chemical flows and signals that direct our bodily systems, can contribute to metabolic conditions like type 2 diabetes, obesity, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune conditions, inflammatory bowel disease, reflux, skin conditions, autism, depression and chronic fatigue syndrome. 

As a closed system from our mouth to our bottom, a key job of the gut is to keep foreign substances from entering the body. A ‘leaky gut’ allows unhelpful proteins into the bloodstream (permeating the intestine), triggering the immune system to attack them. Foods that cause leaky gut include gluten, seed oils and refined sugar.

Warren’s BePure explains: “The breach of the intestinal barrier by food toxins like gluten and chemicals like arsenic or BPA causes an immune response which affects not only the gut itself, but also other vital organs such as your skeletal system, the pancreas, the kidney, the liver, and the brain.” 

What can contribute to unhealthy gut flora? According to BePure: antibiotics and other medications like birth control and NSAIDs; diets high in refined carbohydrates, sugar and processed foods; diets low in fermentable fibres (aka not enough veggies); chronic stress and infections.

Says Ben, “We know that what we eat has the biggest influence on the state of our gut health – the food we eat can either be the greatest medicine, or a total poison.”

For healthy gut flora, here are some consensus recommendations:

• Chew food well, eat in a calm state. And eat a wide variety of ‘good’ foods.

• Avoid foods and chemicals that irritate the gut, including dairy, processed meats and sugar, artificial sweeteners, and alcohol (OK, moderate amounts of red wine, say some).

• Eat plenty of fermentable fibers (starches like kūmara, pumpkin, resistant starch from cooked and cooled potatoes or whole grains, etc.)

• Up your intake of fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut, kombucha, kimchi, etc.

• Consider taking a probiotic and/or a prebiotic supplement. (Prebiotics provide ‘food’ meant to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut, while probiotics are live good bacteria.)

• If you require antibiotics (which have a huge impact on gut health, wiping out bacteria of all kinds), be especially sure to eat probiotic foods.

• Manage your stress. 

• Breastfeed your baby.

• And finally, play in the dirt! One expert notes that more exposure to germs and bacteria, within reason, can strengthen our microbiomes: “We are way too clean of a society … Go outside, dig in the dirt, play with animals … it’s all good. These are things that will help establish a healthy gut.” 

Royston Hospital is pleased to sponsor robust examination of health issues in Hawke’s Bay. This reporting is prepared by BayBuzz. Any editorial views expressed are those of the BayBuzz team.

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