How ‘added value’ is killing us one packet of chips at a time

by | Apr 26, 2022 | Opinion

I doubt Michael Pollan was thinking of the New Zealand primary sector when he wrote his seminal work, In Defence of Food, but he might as well have. His now-famous phrase could be our national food strategy:

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

The sentence, written in 2006, is now repeated like a mantra by foodies the world over, and captures the essence of what a good food industry should look like.

Michael Pollen: eat food

Good, that is, for consumers. As Pollan points out, the food industry does not always work in the interests of its customers. What’s good for humans is whole foods – nuts, fruits, vegetables, meat, seafood – and lightly processed foods such as milk, cheese, breads, and flavoured and cooked commodities. What’s not good for us are highly processed foods full of refined carbs and sugars, salts, additives, colourings and stablisers. The more we process foods the less nutrition they contain and become, as Pollan calls them, ‘food-like substances’.

And they dominate our diet. Professor of Public Health at AUT, Grant Schofield, and his team have been photographing kids’ lunchboxes and classifying the contents. He estimates 70-80% consist of such highly processed food. They’ve done similar studies with supermarket trolleys. Same proportions.

“It’s food that’s low in nutrients, protein and essential fats and is lower in essential micronutrients. But it’s high in energy and it can often dysregulate our satiety. So there’s potentially an addictive component to some of those foods. Plus there’s potentially the fact that glucose and insulin are raised and they go on this roller coaster of hunger and partial fullness,” says Grant.

Listen to the full interview with Professor Grant Schofield here.

Prof Grant Schofield: 80% of our groceries is not food

The effects are in our awful public health figures. One in three New Zealand children overweight or obese. Our sugar intake exceeds World Health Organisations guidelines. The WHO recommends children should have no more than five teaspoons of sugar a day but that is difficult when the average 600 ml bottle of soft drink contains 16 teaspoons of sugar.

The industry dilemma

The problem is that no one makes money by making whole foods. Selling commodities is a terrible business. The supermarkets are filled with processed food because ‘adding value’ is seen as the only way to escape the commodity trap.

In New Zealand, ‘adding value’ has been the stick used to beat the primary sector for being unproductive and uneconomic. For decades the primary sector has been told (mostly by people outside of the industry) to pursue value over volume. Indeed the ‘volume to value’ story is the driver of most primary sector strategies. And ‘adding value’ is seen as a key tool for getting there.

That creates a problem. On the one hand we tell our growers that they must add value to their produce to escape the commodity trap. Yet in doing so they’re potentially poisoning the very people they sell to. Killing your customers is typically a bad idea unless you’re a cigarette company, and even then you want to do it slowly, not when their just kids.

A key tenet of sustainability is that your products do no harm. This includes the making of products and the using of products. You don’t often hear of cluster-bomb manufacturers winning environmental awards for that very reason. New Zealand increasingly styles itself as a sustainable food producer. Government promotions agency NZ Story is confident enough to proclaim that New Zealand is ‘good for the world’.

What does that mean for the food industry? Well, it probably means not heading down the ‘added value’ route to sugary, salty, packaged junk food. If adding value means stripping commodities of their actual value then there has to be another way. But what is it?

As nature intended

It starts with questioning what adding value means. At its simplest, it just means increasing the margin between the cost of production and the return from the sale. Adding value is one way to do that, but there are others. Lowering costs for example. We’re very good at that. The productivity improvements in sheep farming means we’ve more than halved sheep numbers and doubled the returns. We get ‘more from less’ in almost every part of our primary sector, with apples, kiwifruit, grapes and dairy products as outstanding examples.

There are other ways. Scarcity creates value. It’s how a single blue nose tuna can fetch $2 million in a Japanese fish market. Provenance can create value – champagne anyone? Branding and storytelling can create value. So can design, uniqueness, quality, reputation, convenience and  ethics. The researchers at AERU have found that cooperation across the entire value chain is one of the most powerful ways to create value.

We could go on but you get the point. The road to value does not have to lead to a salty, packaged hell-snack.

The challenge for New Zealand food producers is to hold true to the principles of the whole-food revolution, making fresh food that’s ethically sourced, safely delivered and deliciously presented – and achieve a premium for what could be a commodity.

There’s an opportunity here. We see it being explored in campaigns like Taste Pure Nature and in products like Rockit Apples. Zespri’s nailing it. So is Comvita and First Light Foods. They’re creating value from the inherent value of their food. No added sugar. No added salt. No added value. Just whole food as nature intended.


About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Vincent Heeringa is a communications strategist, writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in tech, investment, and sustainability. He was co-founder of Idealog, Stoppress and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. He is the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’, co-founder of The, and a trustee of the Adventure Specialties Trust. And there's nothing he loves more than a good story.

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