The human race was not built in one day, but through a process of evolution and co-evolution. Humans adapted their eating habits to the products available in their environment, but also according to the fellow beings with whom they shared their meals. From this long history of nutrition emerged consumer habits that today are brought into question by a multitude of messages regarding health, the environment, or ethics. Since then, even if today’s omnivorous consumers know the effect that diet has on their health, their food choices remain as perplexing, with a mixture of societal and public health considerations.
In this respect, Pascal Picq from the Collège de France shares his views on paleoanthropology with us: “In two generations, our societies have wiped out millenniums of cultural evolution regarding our knowledge of vegetable and animal resources in our diet, and everything about how we consume them.” Today, many of us don’t go to the market anymore, don’t prepare our own food, don’t eat together as a family, etc. And according to our expert, this is where we must look for the root of the current obesity problem, “a result of junk food leading to the disappearance of the convivial, affective and social aspects of eating”. Eaters must therefore go back to thinking of eating as a complete, overall social act, and not just a mere function.
But being a consumer in 2011 also means being a responsible citizen, as Dr. Martine Padilla, an expert in populations’ nutritional safety, eating habits and public policy at CIHEAM-IAMM in Montpellier, reminds us. Nowadays we always have to compromise with the emphasis on “sustainable eating” and the sometimes conflicting choices between the public good and personal health that consumers are faced with. With the gravity of their social and environmental responsibility, coupled with their desire for economic solidarity and transparency, today’s consumers operate in a spirit of guilt-ridden confusion: torn between local and imported products, seasonal vegetables and those available all year round, organic or conventional foods, eating meat or becoming vegetarian. And upon these matters, even the experts are divided: “Without sufficient studies, the answers are sometimes counter-intuitive,” the sociologist points out.
We therefore have to wait for science to serve its purpose and for research to progress through large-scale initiatives like the NutriNet-Santé (nutritional health) survey. “With the quantity and quality of the information gathered, and the size of the sample, the NutriNet-Santé cohort will help us build a gigantic database on the French population’s nutrition and health, which will be one of the largest epidemiological databases on health in the world,” says Prof. Serge Hercberg, head of the nutritional epidemiology research unit INSERM/INRA/CNAM/Paris13, which coordinates the project. Launched in May 2009, this French survey plans to monitor 500,000 individuals for a period of ten years, and the team continues to include new “nutrinauts”. Their mission: making French people aware of their eating habits. Watch this space…