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Is the HealthyLiving Award healthy?


 That’s me on the right

In 2006 I opened a delicatessen which specialised in Locally sourced, Fairtrade, Organic, healthy food options with new and fresh products on the menu. These were extensions of my ethos. I wanted to bring new and exciting ideas to the market. In doing so, I created a hub of the local community and local businesses and residents became enthused. I supported cottage industry up and down the country, often dealing with owners directly or through wholesale suppliers. I followed trends from this lucrative and very popular market south of the border to implement them in Glasgow.

At that time the HealthyLiving Award was launched by the Scottish Consumer Council as an initiative to help improve healthy attitudes in food outlets. Set up to make it easier for consumers eating out and to make caterers think more about the foods they provide to consumers. This was something that I was personally very interested in and so was more than happy to apply. The application process centred on scrutinising product lines, ingredients nutritional values and a commitment to key points of lowering salt, fats & sugars and promoting  healthy foods like fruit and vegetables but with a strong emphasis on starchy carbohydrates for bulking out meals.

Through the process of achieving the award, I didn’t always agree on all of their rhetoric. Having a delicatessen meant specialising and providing accompaniments for food not always favoured by the process no matter how authentic they were. My background of living abroad for many years in particular the Mediterranean countries had led me to believe in this continental style of diet. So when it came to the subject of salads it was difficult for me to agree on dressings and seasoning’s. However, I towed the party line to gain the certificate and became the first Deli in Glasgow to attain this award. But not because I had the oldest deli, the commitment as a business to implement the HealthyLiving Award system may not have been popular at that time. I had made compromises on my creative recipes and menu to make this happen but also a financial commitment. At the time, branded low-fat products were significantly more expensive from suppliers. My commitment to locally sourced and ethical products gave me some more headaches but I felt this new stance was reaching out to give better products to the dismal offerings already on the high street. Many popular food outlets cut corners using the cheapest sources to gain the highest profit which their owners feel is required to make a living. Many will still argue for that, however the health stats for this country and across the UK say otherwise.

So as part of the Healthy-Living Award system I persevered as with my other ethical plans. HealthyLiving menus had green apple stickers (as above & below) on the menu making it easier for customers to make healthy choices. By the time I renewed my award 2 years later, many hundreds of businesses had come onboard including many public service organisations like the NHS canteens, councils, schools and private companies. The award had seemed to fulfil  it’s intentions of improving healthy food options in Scotland. Wide spread recognition within public sector workplace eating establishments seemed to confound this new attitude. Since its start 6 years ago, 675 businesses have achieved the award with many more working towards it. Around 210,000 people in Scotland now eat in award-holding establishments every day.

However big changes have recently been implemented. Since the start of 2012 HealthyLiving award sites can no longer use the ‘apple’ logo or any other symbol to highlight menu items. This is due to EU Regulations on Nutrition and Health Claims in Food, businesses are no longer able to make health claims for specific foods. This has meant costs in changing menus for award holders and to the award system in marketing and retraining assessors. There are a draft of new measures and rhetoric. This no longer affects me personally as I sold my business in 2010, however the green apples were an issue for some in the system back when I held the award for 4 years. I didn’t see the harm in it but some felt it promoted perceived unhealthy products that had been made healthy by using lower fat versions.

My 2007 menu with HealthyLiving green apples on the left.

It has been a long road and quite a challenge. Here in Scotland, attitudes to food can be distorted, coupled with a dark sense of humour about their morality. Many people go out of their way to not eat healthy. Their demand for fast food chains has dominated the food takeaway sector through high streets and retail parks alike. Having been in hospitality for more than 15 years and traded as a Deli for 4 years on the coal-face, its quite clear that many customers are just not interested in healthy eating. Often in front of their peers, men especially have an ingrained negative attitude about eating healthily. My years living abroad forced me to change my West coast of Scotland diet and I realised the benefit of eating fresh, local and mainly seasonal foods. But here, mass expansion in UK supermarkets have heavily influenced eating habits with their focus more on convenience foods with clever packaging. These can carry dangerous levels of salt, fat, sugars and often highly processed.

Overall the HealthyLiving Award has been a fantastic achievement in changing attitudes in this country. But like many initiatives, there are flaws. Highly processed foods is our biggest downfall. This has been of particular concern to me and quite a challenge as a caterer to break from the norm. Providing cost-effective alternatives is a challenge especially to just finding suppliers. It is possible to be in the HealthyLiving category and be highly processed or be high starch carbohydrates which for some body types will be harder to digest. My view is that the secret is being balanced, plenty of variety and yes oil can be healthy. One size doesn’t fit all businesses or diets.

One relevant issue now is the subject of vitamin D. There is research now suggesting that taking vitamin D supplements do not work to absorb well and that natural vitamin D in our diet is better for us. Vitamin D is linked to sunlight and here in Scotland we have rare glimpses of this. Low fat oils, spreads and dairy have less vitamin D than taking full fat products. This may seem to contradict the HealthyLiving Award way. But these indications may take time to filter down to be accepted and may also not suit all diets.

So, the answer to the original question?  Is the HealthyLiving Award healthy?

Well, in short the answer on the whole is YES but in some ways No.

YES because:

Our country needs to address a growing obesity problem. The HealthyLiving Award has helped significantly improve healthy eating options while out and about across the country, especially in large onsite workplaces, food courts and hospitals.

No because:

A healthy diet with Vitamin D and low-fat products seem to be at odds with each other. Good quality fatty acids are essential to a balanced diet. Lowering Vitamin D intake in a region that can be Vitamin D deficient is not always a good thing. Full fat has its benefits.

And inconveniently; cheaper, easier to source highly processed products should be avoided. I still believe the Mediterranean diet to be the best and lets promote seasonal.

As always thanks for reading and I welcome your comments below

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