The Cream Cheese Distraction

Eat what makes you happy - jon-tyson-204115-unsplash.jpg

In a recent meeting, a dilemma arose about cream cheese.  But before you start thinking cream cheese is a food of little significance, the issue discussed is symbolic, and one that sits at the heart of the future of food.

The point raised at the meeting centred around the classification of cream cheese within the Health Star Rating system.  Depending on how it is classified (as a dairy food, a non-dairy food, or a spread) it’s Health Star rating ranges from 1 up to 3.5. 

Hours of attention have been spent by cream cheese makers deciding how best to categorise cream cheese to ensure it carries an accurate rating, according to the Health Star system. The same issue will have been addressed by other food businesses across other food categories, and in other countries with similar systems, taking hours, days and weeks of attentional resources.  

This may seem trivial until we consider that attention is a finite resource.  When we pay attention to one thing, it’s not just that we focus on advancing that particular thing, it’s that we also give something else up.  Something that may have otherwise received our attention does not.


“When you ‘pay attention’ you pay with all the things you could have attended to, but didn’t; all the goals you didn’t pursue…had you attended to those other things.  Attention is paid in possible futures foregone.”

- James Wilson Williams


The question this raises is that if we have limited amounts of attention, is contemplating whether cream cheese is a cheese, a spread or belongs in another category altogether, the best way to be directing that attention? Is the future of food about getting the right number of Stars or traffic lights on a label, or is there something else that we are giving up that could represent a better way forward?

The validity of the Health Star system to improve public health is yet to be proven, and despite decades of effort to reformulate foods, we consistently hear that more needs to be done. If the tonnes of salt, fat and sugar that have been removed from the food supply to date are yet to make the population healthier, how far do we need to go before we start to make an impact?

Perhaps there is an alternative - one that has not received enough of our attention. And that alternative could be to give more attention to the adoption of eating habits that improve our food culture, putting more focus on how we eat, rather than simply on what we eat.

Directing our attention toward the French way of eating is one useful place to start.

A recent study assessed elements of the French way of eating and their association with rates of overweight and obesity. After reviewing the habits of 47,219 participants, the researchers found that those who followed traditional French eating habits, such as sitting at a table with other people, eating three meals a day at set times, and considering meals as a moment of pleasure, were 11% less likely to be overweight and 24% less likely to be obese.

From a public health perspective, a change of this magnitude would be considered a highly effective step forward.  It raises the question - if we are seeking strategies to address overweight and obesity in Australia and globally, an equally effective, and perhaps less complex way to inspire change may be to divert some of our attention away from contemplating how to classify foods, and encouraging people to take time out to sit and eat, preferably with others and to eat with pleasure.

It could be that encouraging the development of a food culture where we eat less, and take more time doing it, is a positive pathway toward a better future, where inspiration trumps regulation and food is recognised for more than its physical attributes.

As we head toward 2019, some questions to consider are:

  1. What type of food culture do you believe will be best for the future and what can you do to contribute to this vision?

  2. How do you want the next generation to think about what it means for food to be 'healthy'? 

  3. What values about food are driving your product development and marketing efforts?  Do these values need review to be relevant to today, and to lead you well into the future?

If you would like a sounding board to help answer the above questions, please get in touch. And for five tips on how to eat like the French, check out this short video.