The problem with food in the first world – its not simple!

Unpacking our shopping this afternoon from our occasional pilgrimage to the food mecca that is Wholefoods, I couldn’t help but laugh over the utter absurdity of it all. According to The Hunger Project, 1.2 billion people who live below the poverty line every day – I am quite sure they aren’t ruminating over the benefits of organic spelt!

Water as a status symbol?

perrierWhen the marketing of life’s basic necessity, water, became a status symbol you knew that something was out of kilter between the have’s and have not’s. Imagine there was a time when bottled water didn’t exist in our catalog of popular commodities. Perhaps the trend started in 1976 when the chic French sparkling water, Perrier made its introduction. There it was seductively bottled in its emerald green glass amongst the era of disco and the spectacle of excesses… who could resist right? What could be more decadent than to package, sell and consume what most consider (in the western world) a human right easily supplied through a tap! It’s absurd that the cost of bottled water is at a “280,000% markup” to your tap water and it’s reaching record heights in consumption1. (It’s Sunday afternoon so doing the markup calculation of a bottle of water I once saw in Selfridges for £25 is too depressing.) 

This issue reminds me of the scene in the Bond film, Quantum of Solace where Bond and Camille discover the baddies, The Quantum Organisation are damming Bolivia’s supply of fresh water to create a monopoly. Perhaps in the not so distant future this will become a real issue?

Anyway back to my original problem, choice. We live in a world of excess. It is entirely possible, here in the UK, to live a food life of total excess but to remain nutritionally deficient.

How have we got to this state?

I lamented the news last year that Dunkin’ Donuts, the US chain, has launched a second attempt to expand in Britain with a deal to open 50

restaurants in London over the next five years. Welcome to the calorie busting Pumkin Spice Coffee Coolatta [1,040 calories] bam, one days calorie allowance seriously hit.

Wolfram Schultz, professor of Neuroscience at the University of Cambridge explains why this is so irresistible, even though we know how bad these things are for us: “there is nothing in our brains that makes us see a box of donuts and automatically want a sugary treat, but once our brain learns that a doughnut box contains yummy sugar and carbohydrates, it will start anticipating the sugar high. Our brains will push us towards the box. Then, if we don’t eat the doughnut, we’ll feel disappointed.3” Great, our brain is at war with itself over this. The price point Dunkin’ Donuts will be perfect for is the coins burning a hole in our teenagers pockets on the way home from school. No problem that the scale of Britain’s obesity epidemic is worse than feared, according to a report from the National Obesity Forum4. A previous worst-case scenario, published in the 2007 Foresight Report, predicted that half of the population would be obese by 2050. This is now looking like an “underestimate”, says the Forum, which suggests that half of the population could be obese ten years earlier than predicted, in 2040. But don’t worry, as long as Dunkin’ Donuts tick their CSR box by sponsoring a major football club, that will be ok then?

We have become so confused by the latest food trends, by conflicting advice, by changes in food manufacture that who knows what is nutritionally correct anymore? Even knowing what I, as a 42yr old woman require for my daily calorie intake is confusing, don’t worry, I think I know, even though my waistline suggests otherwise, but hang on do I really?

Googling calorie requirement for a 42 yr old woman gives me 38,300,000 results. It seems to depend on my weight, height, how active I am… and more. I also know that hitting 40 causes hormonal change, affects the calorie requirement and recently I was told I am not eating enough? Now I believe I have a modicum of intelligence and I am confused. If I read the Daily Mail right hand column of shame, I need to subsist on less than 1,000 calories a day while slogging through boot camp. Sorry Daily Mail, that would see me fainting! So I follow a fairly clean way of eating, trying to drop the sugar, very little naughtiness, mindful of portion size, but with more than a little movement. You would think that’s work? Well that’s another story but in this working out a ‘clean’ menu I run into a dilemma over grains.

Grains – our most basic food source

RiceWell, grains, what a Pandora’s box? Perhaps sticking to a diet considered subliminal by the World Health Organisation of three bowls of plain rice a day would do the trick but hang on, white rice…

A white rice diet is no longer considered the healthy norm, but even so, eating white rice does have some health advantages over other carbohydrate choices. Though there has been a push in the media and by many diets to cut out all refined carbohydrates (and eat only whole grains), white rice is actually packed with nutrients and is a staple for millions of people around the world.

White Rice Nutritional Values

White rice falls within the carbohydrate food group, with 85% of its makeup being carbohydrate, 7% fat and 8% protein, as well as offering a wide array of amino acids. White rice is very low in fat and has a higher protein quality at 66% than corn at 49% and whole wheat at 53%. One cup of white rice provides your body with 5 grams of protein and 205 calories. Rice is a low cholesterol and low fat food that has been used as a part of many diet programs because of its nutritional makeup. Throughout Asia, white rice is a staple food that is eaten every day, and in many cases, at every meal.4

A glance at the shelves of Wholefoods sees a dazzling array of types of rice of every colour. There are more than 7,000 varieties of rice (no they don’t stock them all at Wholefoods but check out their guide to rice here: So now I could spend a serious amount of time investigating rice, but I have a short attention span and its Sunday evening, so I will leap onto bread.


Ah, bread. Who can resist the smell of freshly cooked bread? Not many of us. It’s why supermarkets of any size have an in-store bakery; it enables that enticing smell to lure our nostrils to the bakery aisle. As mentioned earlier, that puts our brain into expectant mode. So we arrive at the bread aisle and if you thought the rice section had choices of rice, that’s child’s play compared to bread and the rice section doesn’t have that smell wafting around. So which bread? White bread, brown bread, seeded bread, French bread, whole grain bread, on and on we go, different grains, wheat on and on. 

Now whole grain is the recommended choice because apparently white sliced bread is the devils spawn, (well that’s according to middle-class folklore, nothing more than heritage spelt wheat there). Bread is made out of flour that comes from grain kernels — usually wheat. A grain kernel has three parts: the bran, the endosperm, and the germ (so called because it’s the part of the kernel that germinates into a new plant).

Whole grains contain all parts of the grain kernel. But refined grains, like the flour used to make white bread, have had the fiber-dense bran and the nutrient-rich germ processed out, leaving only the starchy endosperm. This means that refined grain is not as rich in essential fatty acids, vitamin E, magnesium, and zinc.

Some flour and bread manufacturers “enrich” their bread by adding extra vitamins back in. But it’s still better to eat whole grains. The fiber and protein from the bran and germ provide a more constant source of energy, which will keep you going long after the energy from refined grains, is gone. The fiber in the bran can also mean whole-grain breads help people feel full longer, preventing overeating.

But and here’s the big one, its not considered in our current protein obsessed, food intolerant world, acceptable to eat bread. I know, for me, I love home made (we have a bread machine) white bread toast with butter and marmite is one of the world’s greatest inventions but my gut will expand exponentially. No allergy here, it just blows me up but bread, another worldwide staple has become a subject of huge discussion. Growing numbers of people are finding that they suffer discomfort when they eat wheat and wheat products. The growth in sufferers broadly coincides with the industrialisation of baking, leaving many to draw the conclusion that the problem is not necessarily in the wheat itself, but in how it is processed. Again, an enormous subject but the short answer is a tidal wave of information and choice, the longer answer is this excellent book

So by just looking at water, rice and bread, the most basic of food sources in the UK, I have very quickly fallen into a black hole of sources of information, choice and costs. And therein lies the first world problem, a surfeit of choice, aren’t we lucky?


  1. For a more detailed look at the water industry:
  2. Dunkin’Donuts
  3. Taken from The power of Habit, Charles Duhigg

Images from:

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