From the Brisbane Lions dressing sheds to pioneering Woolworths social marketing campaigns to New Zealand Beef and Lamb, Cindy Williams knows how to spread the world about healthy eating. We caught up with Cindy ahead of her appearance at the New Zealand Aquaculture Conference last week:
Q)Your blog is called nutritionchic – is that chic as in style, or as in the woman.
A)It’s called nutritionchic – as in style. It keeps readers up to date with the latest, in vogue, nutrition information. I like to put the science behind healthy eating into simple, practical ideas that people can apply to their own kitchen. And I throw in the odd comment, usually on twitter, about other aspects of a healthy life, including rugby!I set it up about two years ago, partly for fun and partly for the challenge of getting into a new way of communicating.
Q)You have you’re fingers in many pies – how do you describe yourself, a dietitian, a nutritionist or a writer?
A) It depends who’s asking. But mostly I say I am a dietitian who writes. It’s my formal qualification and you have to be registered with the Dietitians Board in NZ or meet the requirements for an Accredited Practising Dietitian in Australia. Nutritionist can sound less clinical and I think a bit more consumer friendly but almost anyone can call themselves a nutritionist.
Q)You were the dietitian behind a healthy-eating programme for 17,000, 8-year-olds run by Woolworths supermarkets in Queensland – why did a large company like Woolworths invest in social-marketing around healthy eating?
A)No supermarket was into nutrition much back then. That was 1990s, and for Woolworths, it was putting their toe in the water and seeing if this ‘nutrition stuff’ works. I worked with the advertising manager and we came up with this idea that we would run a programme around grade 3 children, and invite schools to come into the supermarkets and go on a healthy eating tour. For me it was about teaching kids and supermarket staff healthy eating. For Woolworths it built a positive relationship with teachers, children and parents in the local community. Schools were already doing the occasional supermarket tour but the Supermarket Safaris formalised it into a comprehensive education program that helped teachers with the healthy eating module of the school curriculum. There was no direct correlation between tours and sales which made it harder for some of the store managers to buy into it. But that’s the way it is with nutrition, it’s an enhancing feature in selling a product; it’s not always directly measurable.
Q)So does ‘healthy’ sell?
A)Healthy enhances the sell. Very few of us buy a food just because it’s healthy – that would be like taking medicine. It has to taste good too. A number of food manufacturers are reducing salt and sugar in their products but they have to do it gradually so consumers still like the taste, otherwise they won’t buy it – even if it is healthier. Convenience and cost can also beat healthy, depending on a consumer’s priorities. Having said that, many consumers do want to know what’s in food and how it can benefit them. When I first started there were very few dietitians working in the food industry – now most large food companies employ or use consultant dietitians. It shows how much the importance of nutrition and consumers’ interest has grown.
Q)You’ve worked with several companies over the years on product labelling – why does a company need a dietitian to tell them what they can say about their own food?
A)A dietitian can translate the legislation into a simple, practical statement that a manufacturer can use on their food label. It can be quite complex and you have to make sure you get it exactly right. The Australian and New Zealand Food Authority has exact guidelines for when a food manufacturer can make a nutrient claim such as ‘low fat’ or ‘low salt’. And currently the legislation in NZ and Australia prohibits health claims such as ‘This food can help relieve arthritis’ or ‘This food reduces cholesterol’. The US allows some health claims but not here. They are in the process of reviewing parts of the Food Standards Code that relate to that at the moment but the criteria of what you can say on a pack will always be very strict.
Q)So if a producer can’t come out and say their mussels will help relieve arthritis, how do they get the word out?
A)If a claim is backed up by science and good research, you can get the message out through non-branded organisations that promote a whole food group for example dairy, seafood or meat. You can also use reputable health organisations like the Nutrition Foundation or the Heart Foundation, and dietitians, writers and chefs who are opinion leaders in their field.Then there is the internet. Some companies are starting to use food and nutrition bloggers to get their message out. They send them a sample of their product, invite them on a tour or send them a pre-written story or media release that they hopefully will use on their blog or website.When a blogger (especially if the writer appears credible) tells you that they tried a certain product and they liked it, and here are the health benefits, it’s like having a friend tell you. It’s like electronic word of mouth.A generic, natural product like seafood is much easier to promote than a manufactured food. And with seafood, we all know it’s good for us – but so many of us don’t eat it as often as we should. That’s the challenge. We should be focusing on getting everyone to eat it twice a week.
Q)In New Zealand there is a prevailing public perception that it costs more to eat a healthy balanced diet – is this true?
A)It can cost more – lean meat is more expensive than fatty meat and milk is more expensive than fizzy drink. But the healthiest cereals such as rolled oats are also the cheapest. And having your own vegetable garden and catching your own fish is pretty cheap. But there is the trade-off of time and skill. To eat healthy and not spend much money requires time, planning and cooking skills. Lentils and dried beans are an incredibly cheap protein source – if you know how to cook them. There are a few Kiwi web-sites and of course, the Healthy Food Guide, which provide cheap healthy meal ideas. I’m all for people getting back to basics, eating food that your grandmother would recognise. It’s the extras – chips, biscuits, lollies, fizzy drink and take-aways – that blow the budget or worse, replace the more healthy, time-consuming basic foods. But in many low income families there are other social issues they are dealing with that are far more critical than how nutritious the food is. It’s important to acknowledge that.
Q)How do you see New Zealand’s three major aquaculture products fitting into the 21st century lifestyle?
A)They fit in really well. They tick all the boxes for emerging trends. They’re environmentally friendly, sustainable and nutrient dense, meaning a small amount of the food provides a lot of nutrients. Less is more. With all the talk about a future global food shortage, nutrient rich seafood is ideal. At the moment we have the problem of quantity without quality. We over-eat on foods bulked out with sugar, salt and fat, and we all know that once you start on these foods it’s hard to stop. With NZ mussels, salmon and oysters, you get a lot of nutrition out of eating a little bit which is perfect for coming trends. Plus the nutrients in seafood such as omega-3 fats have an important role to play in 21st century health problems such as brain function, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease and obesity.
Q)You are a regular contributor to NZ’s number 1 healthy food magazine – Healthy Food Guide – what are the dominant trends your readers are interested in?
A) Readers are always interested in weight and healthy eating for kids. They also like information on specific conditions such as gut health, heart health, brain health etc. Lately I’ve written about men’s issues, healthy pee and the link between sleep and weight. The readers also love the simple, fast, family friendly recipes. It’s a great magazine because it is so practical and easy to read. I think it’s so popular because it gives people simple practical ideas that they can do today. 0.