COMMENT: How much sugar are New Zealanders eating? How many of us are actually following official healthy eating guidelines? Are we getting enough vegetables, or calcium, or iron? In the average Kiwi pantry, is quinoa really a thing?
Right now, the answer to any and all of those questions, from an expert point of view, is "We don't know".
That's because the last time an official survey was done – a proper look at what we are actually eating – was more than 10 years ago. The National Nutrition Survey, which many of us might imagine is an ongoing, routine piece of data collection, has not been done since 2009, and there are no plans to do it again.
This surprising fact was the focus of a symposium I attended in Dunedin recently. I have lost count of the number of people I talked to – public health experts; researchers; doctors; dietitians – who are tearing their hair out at the fact we don't really know what is going down in the diets of ordinary New Zealanders.
The National Nutrition Survey records what people - in the last survey, a group of 4700 - eat during a set period of time, and also goes into their homes to observe it. It's a very important collection of data.
It's important because we can't change what we don't measure. We know we have some serious challenges when it comes to non-communicable diseases, and we know that many of them relate to diet. But experts can't make recommendations, let alone policies and strategies, if they don't really know what we're eating. In the past, the survey data analysis uncovered some issues; for example we weren't getting enough iodine or folate. We've since made headway on solving this through fortification of some foods.
When we think about the past 10 years, so much has changed. Our food supply, for example; we're eating foods that were unheard of 10 years ago. And in our society and culture; 10 years ago smartphones were new and UberEats wasn't even imagined. What impact has that had? We don't really know.
Our health researchers need up-to-date data to work with. Right now, they can delve into the data and come up with interesting reports, but how relevant are they when that data is so old?
The food industry wants a survey too; this may be one of the few issues on which industry and public health professionals are united.
Professor Jim Mann of Otago University, one of the symposium's organisers, says there's a desperate need for a new survey.
"We are saying nutrition is incredibly important for human health, but currently we don't actually know what New Zealanders are eating," he says.
He points to recent research from Otago University highlighting the importance of fibre: "If we are saying there is a lot of evidence for the benefits of dietary fibre – and the whole world is talking about it – how much fibre are we having in New Zealand? We haven't got a clue."
* Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large for Healthy Food Guide www.healthyfood.co.nz