Healthcare, minerals, energy, food: how adopting new tech could drive Australia’s economic recovery



CSIRO, Author provided

Katherine Wynn, CSIRO; James Deverell, CSIRO; Max Temminghoff, CSIRO, and Mingji Liu, CSIRO

Over the next few years, science and technology will have a vital role in supporting Australia’s economy as it strives to recover from the coronavirus pandemic.

At Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, we’ve identified opportunities that can help businesses drive economic recovery.

We examined how the pandemic has created or intensified opportunities for economic growth across six sectors benefiting from science and technology. These are food and agribusiness, energy, health, mineral resources, digital and manufacturing.

Advanced healthcare

While some aspects of Australian healthcare are currently digitised, system-wide digital health integration could improve the quality of care and save money.

Doctors caring for patients with chronic diseases or complex conditions could digitally coordinate care routines. This could streamline patient care by avoiding consultation double-ups and providing a more holistic view of patient health.

We also see potential for more efficient healthcare delivery through medical diagnostic tests that are more portable and non-invasive. Such tests, supported by artificial intelligence and smart data storage approaches, would allow faster disease detection and monitoring.

There’s also opportunity for developing specialised components such as 3D-printed prosthetics, dental and bone implants.

Green energy

Despite a short-term plateau in energy consumption caused by COVID-19 globally, the demand for energy will continue to grow.

Through clean energy exports and energy initiatives aligned with decarbonisation goals, Australia can help meet global energy demands. Energy-efficient technologies offer immediate reduced energy costs, reduced carbon emissions and less demand on the energy grid. They also create local jobs.




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Innovating with food and agribusiness

The food and agribusiness sector is a prominent contributor to Australia’s economy and supports regional and rural prosperity.

Global population growth is driving an increased demand for protein. At the same time, consumers want more products that are sustainable and ethically sourced.

Australia could earn revenue from the local production and export of more sustainable proteins. This might include plant-based proteins such as pea and lupins, or aquaculture products such as farmed prawns and seaweed.

We could also offer more high-value health and well-being foods. Examples include fortified foods and products free from gluten, lactose and other allergens.

Automating minerals processes

Even before COVID-19 struck, the mineral resources sector was facing rising costs and declining ore grades. It’s also dealing with climate change impacts such as droughts, bushfires, floods, and social pressures to reduce environmental harm.

Several innovative solutions could help make the sector more productive and sustainable. For instance, increasing automation and remote mining (which Australia already excels in) could achieve improved safety for workers, more productivity and business continuity.




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Also, investing in advanced technologies that can generate higher quality data on mineral character and composition could improve yields and minimise environmental harm.

High-tech manufacturing

COVID-19 has escalated concerns around Australia’s supply chain fragility – take the toilet paper shortages earlier in the pandemic. Expanding local manufacturing efforts could create jobs and increase Australia’s earning potential.

This is especially true for mineral processing and manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, food and beverages, space technology and defence. Our local manufacturing will need to adapt quickly to changes in supply needs, ideally through the use of advanced designs and technology.

Digital solutions

In April and May this year, Australian businesses made huge strides in adopting consumer and business digital technologies. One study estimated five years’ worth of progress occurred in those eight weeks. Hundreds of thousands of businesses moved their work online.

Over the next two years, Australian businesses could become more efficient and adaptable by further monetising the data they already collect. For example, applying mobile sensors, robotics and machine learning techniques could help us make better resource decisions in agriculture.

Similarly, businesses could share more data throughout the supply chain, including with customers and competitors. For instance, increased data sharing among renewable energy providers and customers could improve the monitoring, forecasting and reliability of energy supply.

Making the right plans and investments now will determine Australia’s recovery and resilience in the future.The Conversation

Katherine Wynn, Lead Economist, CSIRO Futures, CSIRO; James Deverell, Director, CSIRO Futures, CSIRO; Max Temminghoff, Senior Consultant, CSIRO, and Mingji Liu, Senior Economic Consultant, CSIRO

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The rise of ultra-processed foods and why they’re really bad for our health


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Phillip Baker, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence, Deakin University, and Priscila Machado, Deakin University

Humans (and our ancestors) have been processing food for at least 1.8 million years. Roasting, drying, grinding and other techniques made food more nutritious, durable and tasty. This helped our ancestors to colonise diverse habitats, and then develop settlements and civilisations.

Many traditional foods used in cooking today are processed in some way, such as grains, cheeses, dried fish and fermented vegetables. Processing itself is not the problem.

Only much more recently has a different type of food processing emerged: one that is more extensive, and uses new chemical and physical techniques. This is called ultra-processing, and the resulting products ultra-processed foods.

To make these foods, cheap ingredients such as starches, vegetable oils and sugars, are combined with cosmetic additives like colours, flavours and emulsifiers. Think sugary drinks, confectionery, mass-produced breads, snack foods, sweetened dairy products and frozen desserts.

Unfortunately, these foods are terrible for our health. And we’re eating more of them than ever before, partially because of aggressive marketing and lobbying by “Big Food”.

Ultra-processed foods are harming our health

So concludes our recent literature review. We found that more ultra-processed foods in the diet associates with higher risks of obesity, heart disease and stroke, type-2 diabetes, cancer, frailty, depression and death.

These harms can be caused by the foods’ poor nutritional profile, as many are high in added sugars, salt and trans-fats. Also, if you tend to eat more ultra-processed foods, it means you probably eat fewer fresh and less-processed foods.

Industrial processing itself can also be harmful. For example, certain food additives can disrupt our gut bacteria and trigger inflammation, while plasticisers in packaging can interfere with our hormonal system.

Certain features of ultra-processed foods also promote over-consumption. Product flavours, aromas and mouthfeel are designed to make these foods ultra-tasty, and perhaps even addictive.

Ultra-processed foods also harm the environment. For example, food packaging generates much of the plastic waste that enters marine ecosystems.

And yet, we’re eating more and more of them

In our latest study, published in August, we found ultra-processed food sales are booming nearly everywhere in the world.

Sales are highest in rich countries like Australia, the United States and Canada. They are rising rapidly in middle-income countries like China, South Africa and Brazil, which are highly populated. The scale of dietary change and harms to health are therefore likely immense.

‘Big Food’ is driving consumption

We also asked: what explains the global rise in ultra-processed food sales? Growing incomes, more people living in cities, and working families seeking convenience are a few factors that contribute.

However, it’s also clear “Big Food” corporations are driving ultra-processed food consumption globally — think Coca-Cola, Nestlé and McDonald’s. Sales growth is lower in countries where such corporations have a limited presence.

A huge coca cola advertising billboard
Aggressive marketing campaigns by Big Food companies are contributing to growing consumption of ultra-processed foods.
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Globalisation has allowed these corporations to make huge investments in their overseas operations. The Coca-Cola System, for example, now includes 900 bottling plants worldwide, distributing 2 billion servings every day.

As Big Food globalises, their advertising and promotion becomes widespread. New digital technologies, such as gaming, are used to target children. By collecting large amounts of personal data online, companies can even target their advertising at us as individuals.

Supermarkets are now spreading throughout the developing world, provisioning ultra-processed foods at scale, and at low prices. Where supermarkets don’t exist, other distribution strategies are used. For example, Nestlé uses its “door-to-door” salesforce to reach thousands of poor households in Brazil’s urban slums.

Rising consumption also reflects Big Food’s political power to undermine public health policies. This includes lobbying policymakers, making political donations, funding favourable research, and partnerships with community organisations.




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Sweet power: the politics of sugar, sugary drinks and poor nutrition in Australia


Here’s how things can change

The evidence that ultra-processed foods are harming our health and the planet is clear. We must now consider using a variety of strategies to decrease consumption. This includes adopting new laws and regulations, for example by using taxation, marketing restrictions and removing these products from schools.

We cannot rely on industry-preferred responses such as product reformulation alone. After all, reformulated ultra-processed foods are usually still ultra-processed.

Further, simply telling individuals to “be more responsible” is unlikely to work, when Big Food spends billions every year marketing unhealthy products to undermine that responsibility.

Should dietary guidelines now strongly advise people to avoid ultra-processed foods? Brazil and other Latin American countries are already doing this.

And for us as individuals the advice is simple — avoid ultra-processed foods altogether.The Conversation

Phillip Baker, Research Fellow, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, Deakin University; Mark Lawrence, Professor of Public Health Nutrition, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University, and Priscila Machado, Research Fellow, School of Exercise & Nutrition Science, Faculty of Health, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

What Victoria’s abattoir rules mean for the supply and price of meat


Flavio Romero Macau, Edith Cowan University and Ferry Jie

With Victoria’s declaration of a state of disaster and imposition of Stage 4 restrictions, many Melburnians have returned to panic buying. Supermarket shelves across the city have been stripped of canned goods, fresh vegetables and meat.

The meat buying, at least, makes some sense.

After aged care homes, meat-processing facilities have been a major contributor to Victoria’s COVID-19 outbreak. Hundreds of coronavirus cases have been linked to about a dozen sites, with the biggest outbreaks at those in Melbourne’s outer western and northern surburbs.

There were expectations following the state government’s lockdown announcement on Sunday that these facilities might be closed completely, along with the other business restrictions announced on Monday.




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That didn’t happen. But the state’s 70-plus meat-processing facilities will be required to reduce their production capacity by one-third.

They must also implement, in the words of premier Daniel Andrews, “some of the most stringent safety protocols that have been ever put in place in any industrial setting”, including workers dressing “as if they were a health worker – gloves and gowns, masks and shields.”

This is going to affect the supply of meat to Victorian supermarkets, and prices. But thankfully not for long.

Why meat processors?

Processing meat is the opposite of an assembly line. It’s a disassembly line, the equivalent of auto workers pulling apart cars – removing the wheels, doors, seats, engine and so on – to sell the parts. Now imagine each car is slightly different, and must be taken apart in a slightly different way, at fast pace.

Automating such work is difficult. It is complex and intensive manual labour. Lots of people work close together, in a hard environment, for long hours, in cold and dry spaces. These factors make it easy for COVID-19 to spread.

The Victorian government’s directive that meat-processing facilities reduce output by one-third is to ensure workplace changes such as gaps between shifts, more physical distancing, and more attention to measures such as wearing personal protective equipment and not sharing cutting equipment.

So production will go at a slower pace. Output will be lower, and the per-unit cost of packaging meat products for consumers will be higher.

Slaughterhouse workers processing meat.
Slaughterhouse meat workers.
Shutterstock

Synchronising the system

Quality and price are key purchasing decisions for most meat shoppers, and the meat industry has been geared to providing fresh produce at lowest cost.

Getting your favourite beef, lamb, chicken and pork cuts to your local supermarket or neighbourhood butcher is a complex game. Meat processing and distribution centres work out how much to produce, where to deliver and when to do it with great precision, planning up to 90 days ahead. They must synchronise supplies from farmers with demand from retailers.

Think of the system’s smooth operation as being like keeping a roomful of clocks synchronised.

If one clock fails, no problem. You can fix it. But what if a handful more clocks fail before you can fix it, and then dozens more fail? In a short time there will be so many faulty clocks that coordination is compromised. Eventually you won’t even know what the right time is.

Reducing capacity in one or two abattoirs for a few days could be worked around with minimal effects to consumers. But there’s no quick fix to reducing capacity in all of them for six weeks.

Supplies for some meat products will almost certainly be lower, and prices could increase. This is most likely to occur for the most common and popular meat cuts, like T-bone steaks or chicken drumsticks. If your preference is offal or giblets, though, you may not have a problem.




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What is the good news?

Yes, there is good news.

First, thanks to refrigerated transport, meat processors in other states can help meet lower production in Victoria. The industry has some flexibility to move from north to south, from west to east.

Second, supermarkets have been quick to bring restrictions back to prevent the panic buying and hoarding that make shortages even worse. Coles and Woolworths have already imposed two-pack limits on meat packages (and other products).

Third, to hoard meat you need freezer capacity, and it’s quite possible those disposed to stockpiling still have frozen meat from the first COVID-19 wave.




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Fourth, supermarkets and hundreds of smaller operators such as butchers will be affected in different ways at different times. Finding what you want may simply require looking in more than one shop.

Fourth, there are options. Not just between different fresh products such as beef, chicken, pork, lamb and fish, but between preserved, frozen and canned alternatives.

So it might be just a bit harder to have your preferred choice of meat for dinner in the coming days. But the situation won’t be as dire as some fear.The Conversation

Flavio Romero Macau, Senior Lecturer in Supply Chain Management and Global Logistics, Edith Cowan University and Ferry Jie, Asssociate Professor in Supply Chain and Logistics Management, Deputy Director, Centre for Innovative Practice, Edith Cowan University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

America has corn and Asia has rice. It’s time Australia had a native staple food



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Angela Pattison, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, University of Sydney

Most countries have a staple food: native, fast-growing and easy-to-store plants high in carbohydrates.

In Africa, it’s sorghum. In Asia, rice. In the Americas, corn and potato. Around the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Europe, it’s wheat and barley.

Australia is an exception – we do not have a staple food. But native grasslands provide ample opportunity to produce grains. In fact, Aboriginal people once used native grasses to make bread, and there is evidence they were the world’s first bakers.

We argue it’s time to resurrect Australia’s ancient breadmaking tradition. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why.

Loaf of brown bread.
Bread with 10% button grass.
Author provided

Australia’s ancient grain

In an area known as the Panara, located in a ring around central Australia, Aboriginal people used sophisticated fire-based techniques to manage grasslands and harvest grain. They collected the grain in bulk several times a year, then stored it in the off-season.

The grains harvested were from native grasses – species well suited to growing in local conditions. They were ground, mixed with water then baked in hot coals, to produce a bread resembling damper.

So why doesn’t this collection and preparation of native grains still happen today? There’s no clear answer, however preparing seed for food was very time- and labour-intensive. Also, as Aboriginal groups were massacred or forcibly removed from Country, such practices, and associated knowledges, largely disappeared.

An indigenous person grinding native grain.
Indigenous grain grinding was common before European settlement.
Wikimedia

The benefits of staple food

A native, staple Australian crop would allow us to grow food suited to our environment.

The benefits of producing food from native grasslands are well known. Grasslands need limited, if any, fertiliser, no pesticides, and can tap into groundwater so they don’t need irrigation or land cultivation.

While native grasslands yield less seed than conventional cropping systems (more on this later), fewer resources are needed to produce it. What’s more, grasslands simultaneously provide essential environmental “services” including supporting plant and animal diversity, covering bare ground, and enabling water infiltration, recycling of nutrients and carbon sequestration.




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Australia’s total agricultural production is currently worth about A$60.8 billion a year, and we export about 65% of what we produce. A staple Australian food might not contribute directly to the value of our agricultural exports, at least in the short term. But it may reduce the cost of pest control by increasing habitat for beneficial predators. It also represents a low-risk venture that provides returns to growers who want to increase the native vegetation on their properties.

We are not advocating the wholesale adoption of native grasses as a staple food crop in Australia. But it would be prudent to investigate how native grasses grow and produce seed, to better understand how current farming practices might be improved.

Collection of labelled jars containing grasses.
Native grasses.
Author provided

Connection to Country

Returning to native grasslands would provide a way to understand Indigenous perspectives on looking after Country.

Indigenous land managers used burning techniques to grow and maintain local grass crops. Grasslands are culturally and spiritually significant to Indigenous Australians. Their protection and regeneration could create new business opportunities for Aboriginal people and promote reconciliation.

A number of grasses were used by Aboriginal people, all of which might be a good staple food for Australia. The best approach would be to grow a range of species matched with local customs, soil types, rainfall and season.

Bread re-imagined

Growing, processing, and making bread from native grass will involve new technologies and challenge current methods.

For example, native Mitchell grass, found across northern Australia, produces between a half and one tonne of grain per hectare – less than a quarter the yield of wheat.

This productivity can be increased by identifying and cultivating the plants producing more seed than their neighbours. These individuals have the best chance of producing the next generation of high-yield plants.




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Processing of native grains presents another challenge. The current grain-processing system receives bulk deliveries of wheat with known milling requirements at a set time of year. The timing, size and milling requirements of native grain deliveries would be far less predictable.

To be efficient, modern machine-processing of grain requires that the seed is clean, uniform in size and is not mixed with other types of seeds.

Bread on supermarket shelves
Modern bread making processes differ from that used to make bread from native grain.
Paul Miller/AAP

While the commercial process of making flour is relatively inflexible, in contrast, an experienced baker can work with many types of flour and adjust the dough as they go. This is how Aboriginal people baked loaves from native seed for thousands of years. Creating unique products from native grain will require flexible baking methods, including making them by hand.

In recent years, “ancient grains” such as quinoa, chia and spelt have grown in popularity among food consumers. These crops grow on their own and have been genetically improved for quality, so are relatively consistent when sold as seed, flour or in a baked product.

But Australia’s native grain products may contain multiple species that are grown and harvested together. So at the point of sale, consumers would have to accept that every loaf or biscuit or cake may have a different taste, and contain several types of grain.

Who earns the dough?

When developing native grain as an Australian staple food, we must also be careful not to exploit the knowledge of native grain production at the expense of the traditional caretakers of the knowledge and species. This would be repeating the mistakes of the past.

Native grain production offers potential economic gains. These should go first to the traditional custodians, countering current trends where only 1% of Australia’s native food industry is generated by Indigenous people.




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The Conversation


Angela Pattison, Research scientist at Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, Associate Professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Women are drinking more during the pandemic, and it’s probably got a lot to do with their mental health



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Shalini Arunogiri, Monash University; Caroline Gurvich, Monash University, and Jayashri Kulkarni, Monash University

COVID-19 has significantly affected our collective mental health.

For many people, social disconnection, financial strain, increased obligations in the home and ongoing uncertainty have created distress – and with it, a need for new ways of coping.

One way people may choose to cope with stress is through the use of alcohol.

We’re now starting to understand the degree to which alcohol use has increased in Australia during COVID-19. While the data aren’t alarming so far, they suggest women are drinking at higher levels than usual during the pandemic, more so than men.

This trend is likely linked to the levels of stress and anxiety women are feeling at the moment – which, research suggests, are disproportionate to the distress men are experiencing.




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Alcohol consumption and COVID-19

Early reports of increased alcohol purchasing raised the alarm that we might see an increase in alcohol use across the population during lockdown.

However, recent data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics suggests overall, alcohol consumption remained relatively stable during April. Only 14% of Australians reported increased use of alcohol in the previous month.

But women are over-represented in this group. Some 18% of women reported increased alcohol use in the previous month, compared with only 10.8% of men.

14% of Australians reported they were drinking more than usual during April.
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Similarly, preliminary results from our COVID-19 mental health survey of 1,200 Australians in April found a significantly higher proportion of women had increased their alcohol intake: 31.8%, versus 22.5% of men.

Why are we seeing this disparity between women and men? The answers may lie in what we know about why women drink, and in the disproportionate burden of stress women are facing as a result of COVID-19.

Women tend to drink for different reasons to men

In Australia in 2016, 14% of men and 7% of women drank alcohol to risky levels.

Although fewer women than men drink alcohol regularly, alcohol consumption among women has increased in the past decade, particularly in middle-aged and older women. This mirrors international trends that suggest women may be catching up to men in terms of their alcohol consumption.




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Overall, Australia has observed a reduction in risky drinking across the population, with increasing numbers of young people choosing not to drink.

In contrast, women in their 50s are the only subset of the Australian population with rising rates of alcohol use. In 2016, data showed for the first time, they were more likely to drink at risky levels than younger women.

Drinking has become more normalised among women in this middle-to-older age group, potentially contributing to the rise in alcohol use. Alcohol has become a commonly accepted coping mechanism for distress, with women feeling comfortable to say “I just had a bad day. I needed to have a drink”.

This highlights a theme that frequently underpins problematic alcohol use in women: what’s termed a “coping motive”. Many studies have found more women drink alcohol to cope – with difficult emotions or stressful circumstances – as compared to men, who more often drink alcohol in social settings or as a reward.




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Women’s alcohol consumption catching up to men: why this matters


Women seem to be struggling more during the pandemic

With this in mind, it’s unsurprising we’re seeing increased alcohol consumption among women during COVID-19. International data show women have been more likely to experience symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Australian data show loneliness has been more of a problem for women (28%) than men (16%) during this past month under lockdown.

Caregiver load has also been a source of stress, with women almost three times more likely than men to be looking after children full-time on their own during COVID-19.

Many women have had to work from home while looking after their children.
Shutterstock

While we don’t have enough evidence yet to tell us conclusively whether family violence incidents have increased during the pandemic, this may add to the mental health burden for some women during COVID-19.

Further, younger female workers are disproportionately affected by the economic crisis in the wake of COVID-19. The fact women make up a majority of the casual workforce makes them highly vulnerable at this time.




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Together, it seems COVID-19 is having a different mental health impact on women compared to men. And this is likely to be intertwined with their increased drinking during the coronavirus pandemic.

Whether we’ll see higher rates of problem alcohol use or dependence in women after the pandemic remains unclear. However, we know women who drink at unsafe levels experience complications more quickly, and enter treatment later, with perceived stigma a barrier to help-seeking.

It’s vital we draw our attention to these gender-specific differences in mental health and alcohol consumption as we formulate our mental health pandemic plan.

If this article has raised issues for you, or if you’re concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline on 13 11 14.The Conversation

Shalini Arunogiri, Addiction Psychiatrist, Senior Lecturer, Monash University; Caroline Gurvich, Senior Research Fellow and Clinical Neuropsychologist, Monash University, and Jayashri Kulkarni, Professor of Psychiatry, Monash University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Plates, cups and takeaway containers shape what (and how) we eat



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Abby Mellick Lopes, University of Technology Sydney and Karen Weiss, Western Sydney University

Home cooks have been trying out their skills during isolation. But the way food tastes depends on more than your ability to follow a recipe.

Our surroundings, the people we share food with and the design of our tableware – our cups, bowls and plates, cutlery and containers – affect the way we experience food.




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For example, eating from a heavier bowl can make you feel food is more filling and tastes better than eating from a lighter one.

Contrast this with fast food, which is most commonly served in lightweight disposable containers, which encourages fast eating, underestimating how much food you’re eating, and has even been linked to becoming impatient.

These are just some examples of the vital, but largely unconscious, relationship between the design of our tableware – including size, shape, weight and colour – and how we eat.

In design, this relationship is referred to as an object’s “affordances”. Affordances guide interactions between objects and people.

As Australian sociologist Jenny Davis writes, affordances:

…push, pull, enable, and constrain. Affordances are how objects shape behaviour for socially situated subjects.

Designed objects don’t make us do things.

The colour of your crockery

When you visit a restaurant, the chances are your dinner will be served on a plain white plate.

But French chef Sebastien Lepinoy has staff paint the plates to match the daily menu and “entice the appetite”.

Research seems to back him up. Coloured plates can enhance flavours to actually change the dining experience.

The colour of your mug can influence the taste of your coffee.
Shutterstock

In one study, salted popcorn eaten from a coloured bowl tasted sweeter than popcorn eaten from a white bowl. In another, a café latte served in a coloured mug tasted sweeter than one in a white mug.

This association between colour and taste seems to apply to people from Germany to China.

A review of multiple studies conducted in many countries over 30 years finds people consistently associated particular colours with specific tastes.

Red, orange or pink is most often associated with sweetness, black with bitterness, yellow or green with sourness, and white and blue with saltiness.




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The size of your plate

The influence of plate size on meal portions depends on the dining experience and whether you are serving yourself. In a buffet, for example, people armed with a small plate may eat more because they can go back for multiple helpings.

Nonetheless, average plate and portion sizes have increased over the years. Back in her day, grandma used to serve meals on plates 25cm in diameter. Now, the average dinner plate is 28cm, and many restaurant dinner plates have expanded to 30cm.

Our waistlines have also expanded. Research confirms we tend to eat more calories when our plates are larger, because a larger capacity plate affords a greater portion size.

Plastic is too often ignored

The pace of our busy lives has led many people to rely on those handy takeaways in disposable plastic food containers just ready to pop into the microwave. And it’s tempting to use plastic cutlery and cups at barbecues, picnics and kids’ birthday parties.

In contrast to heavy, fragile ceramic tableware, plastic tableware is designed to be ignored. It is so lightweight, ubiquitous and cheap we don’t notice it and pay little mind to its disposal.

Plastics change the way we eat and drink.
Shutterstock

Plastics have also changed how we eat and drink. An aversion to the strong smell of plastic containers that once might have caused people to wrap their sandwiches before placing them in Tupperware seems to have disappeared. We drink hot coffee though plastic lids.

Australian economic sociologist Gay Hawkins and her colleagues argue lightweight, plastic water bottles have created entirely new habits, such as “constant sipping” on the go. New products are then designed to fit and reinforce this habit.

Aesthetics matter

Healthy eating is not only characterised by what we eat but how we eat.

For instance, eating mindfully – more thoughtfully and slowly by focusing on the experience of eating – can help you feel full faster and make a difference to how we eat.

And the Japanese cuisine Kaiseki values this mindful, slower approach to eating. It consists of small portions of beautifully arranged food presented in a grouping of small, attractive, individual plates and bowls.

This encourages the diner to eat more slowly and mindfully while appreciating not only the food but the variety and setting of the tableware.

Japanese people’s slower eating practices even apply to “fast food”.

One study found Japanese people were more likely to eat in groups, to stay at fast food restaurants for longer and to share fast food, compared with their North American counterparts.

Affordance theory is only now starting to account for cultural diversity in the ways in which designed objects shape practices and experiences.

The studies we have reviewed show tableware influences how we eat. Size, shape, weight, colour and aesthetics all play a part in our experience of eating.

This has wide implications for how we design for healthier eating – whether that’s to encourage eating well when we are out and about, or so we can better appreciate a tastier, healthier and more convivial meal at home.The Conversation

Abby Mellick Lopes, Associate Professor, Design Studies, Faculty of Design, Architecture and Building, University of Technology Sydney and Karen Weiss, PhD Candidate, Western Sydney University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Is it OK to drink coffee while pregnant? We asked 5 experts



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Tessa Ogle, The Conversation

There are so many dos and don’ts associated with pregnancy it can be hard to keep up with them. Coffee is an everyday staple for many people, so it is not surprising women seek reassurance this stimulant is safe during pregnancy.

With guidelines differing between and within countries it can be tricky to assess the risks of having a coffee or two.

We asked five experts whether it’s OK to drink coffee while pregnant.

Four out of five experts said yes

But they all had a pretty big caveat. It’s safe provided it’s consumed in moderation.

It’s also important to remember things like tea, chocolate and energy drinks also contain caffeine, so you’ll need to take that into account when estimating your daily intake.

Here are the experts’ detailed responses:


If you have a “yes or no” health question you’d like posed to Five Experts, email your suggestion to: tessa.ogle@theconversation.edu.auThe Conversation


Tessa Ogle, Assistant Editor, Health + Medicine & Editorial Assistant, The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why flour is still missing from supermarket shelves



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Brigit Busicchia, Macquarie University

Extreme shortages of toilet paper, pasta and other pantry products defined the early weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic for many shoppers around the world. Availability of most these goods has returned to normal.

But not for baking goods – flour in particular.

In Britain the flour shortage has led to the thousand-year-old Sturminster Newton Mill, established in 1016, cranking back into production. Sales by small artisan outfits – such as the Shipton Mill, mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086 – have surged. It’s the same in France.

So why are there flour shortages from Europe to the United States and Australia?

The answer is both simple and complex.

It is partly to do with the basic economics of demand and supply. Demand for baking ingredients has spiked because people staying home (and not going to restaurants or cafes) cook more.

More fundamentally it is about the structure of concentrated food distribution systems geared to supply commercial rather than retail demand.

The inflexibility of those channels highlights a key issue in discussions about food security – that is, ensuring people have access to food. It is not just a matter of how much food is produced but how it is distributed.

Changing consumption patterns

Supermarket shortages of toilet paper and pasta were mostly attributed to a surge in demand driven by panic-buying and stockpiling, along with a lag in supply chains geared to provide just enough product to stores to avoid storing inexpensive but bulky inventory.

As stock disappeared from supermarket shelves, other consumers afraid of being caught short also started buying more than they normally would. Responding to that surge in demand and increasing supply took producers time – usually at least a month.




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But a less-discussed part of the problem was the shift in consumption patterns, as stay-at-home rules resulted in toilet paper demand from workplaces and public buildings declining and home demand increasing. And the toilet paper that commercial buyers want is different to what people buy for themselves.

In the case of flour, the split between supplying commercial and retail demand has been an even more significant factor.

Until the pandemic, retail demand was a small (and diminishing) part of the flour market. In Britain, for example, it represented just 4% of flour consumption. The rest went to commercial bakers and food manufacturers.

While the quality of flour commercial users buy is not necessarily different, the size of the packages in which they buy is – bags of 12, 25 of 32 kilograms, rather than the 1kg or 2kg bags that home bakers prefer.

With home demand spiking – in Australia, for example, retail flour sales rose 140% in March – the large flour-milling operations quickly reached the limits of their equipment and processes to package flour in smaller bags.



ABS 8501.0 Retail Trade, Australia, Mar 2020

Hence the supermarket shortages – and the opportunity that presented for boutique millers.

Industry concentration

Also contributing to the slowness of flour millers in responding to higher retail demand (compared to eggs, for instance) is the level of industry concentration.

In Australia, for example, four companies mill 80% of flour. In Britain the four largest millers account for about 65% of flour production.

Although highly efficient, these producers have been less flexible in adjusting their product packaging and moving distribution to supermarkets.




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Concentration in the supermarket sector has not helped either. Increasingly, supermarket chains cut out intermediaries (wholesalers) from their supply chains and buy directly from producers. This has made changing their sources more difficult.

Production versus distribution

The rigidity of food supply chains in responding to changes in consumption by moving food distribution from commercial to retail channels can also be seen in cases of European and American farmers reportedly pouring milk down the drain and leaving vegetables to rot in their fields.




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As we ponder how to ensure food security, we will need to address these systemic issues. We cannot think problems are solved just by increasing supply. It is distribution that is key.The Conversation

Brigit Busicchia, PhD, Political Economy, Macquarie University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We’ve had a taste of disrupted food supplies – here are 5 ways we can avoid a repeat



The Bread Famine and the Pawnbroker, Brothers Lesueur (18th century)

Kimberley Reis, Griffith University; Cheryl Desha, Griffith University, and Paul Burton, Griffith University

When our reliance on supermarkets is seriously disrupted – for example, by spikes in demand due to panic buying or the flooding of distribution centres – we are left with few alternatives. Supermarkets are central to our everyday lives, but they have also become symbols of our vulnerability in times of disruption.

The COVID-19 crisis has caused us to rethink many things we took for granted. This includes the plentiful supply of a great variety of food at relatively stable prices in our supermarkets.




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Until recently, if we thought about food security at all, it was more likely to conjure images of malnutrition in countries of the global south rather than empty supermarket shelves.

However, food insecurity exists in Australia. It can be experienced as hunger and also as feelings of anxiety about future food shortages.

The rise of supermarkets and global supply chains

Supermarkets were a 1930s success story that began during the Great Depression. The world’s first supermarket, King Kullen, opened with the enduring principle of “Pile it high, sell it low!” King Kullen became the standard model of supermarket operations with globally interconnected supply chains.

While this model epitomised the trend of globalisation, during the second world war more local food production was encouraged in the form of “victory gardens”. These made a significant contribution to food security during the war years. It was a demonstration of what can be achieved in times of crisis.

An Australian government ‘Grow your own’ campaign billboard from 1943.
NAA C2829/2



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‘What if’ questions help us build resilience

Contingency planning is about being clear on your Plan B or Plan C if Plan A hits trouble. It’s about asking the “what if” questions. As a planning tool, this enables systems to build resilience to disruption by identifying other pathways to achieve desired outcomes.

The difference between now and the 1930s is that today we are vastly more connected at a global scale. Within our food-supply chains, we can use the knowledge that comes from this greater connectivity to ask different “what if” questions.

For example, what if a pandemic and a severe weather event overlapped, disrupting critical transport infrastructure? How could we adapt?

Or what if several Australian states experienced serious disruptions to food supply at the same time? How could we ensure timely resupply?

Recent experiences of empty supermarket shelves remind us of the importance of such questions.

Greater self-sufficiency is sensible and practical. Australia’s National Strategy for Disaster Resilience makes clear that we should understand the risks we live with – in this case, our deep-seated and often unquestioned dependency on long food-supply chains.




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The strategy also calls for authorities to help empower citizens to share responsibility where they can in building their own resilience to hardship. This taps into a primal urge, as we have seen in the recent spike in demand for seedlings and vegetable plants at nurseries as people take to home gardening, digging not so much for victory as for survival during a shutdown.

Strategies to prepare for the next crisis

These questions highlight the need to think about ways to complement and enhance existing arrangements for supplying food. Our research identifies several immediate opportunities to promote shorter food-supply chains and devise contingency food plans:

1. We can buy more locally produced food staples, support local producers at a farmers’ market, join a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, or take advantage of online platforms that make a range of locally grown food more readily available.

2. Local businesses can embed contingency arrangements to ensure access to locally produced food within their business continuity plans, building greater capacity to keep business and local economies operating in difficult times.

3. Supermarkets can advocate for and support shorter food-supply chains by sourcing food products locally where possible and championing “buy local” campaigns.

4. An active undertaking to identify and map the regional food bowls of each city and township will support contingency plans.

5. Local councils can help make it possible to grow much more of the food we need, even in relatively dense towns and cities. This can range from potted herbs on apartment balconies, through to broccoli in suburban backyards to intensive farming operations in big industrial estate sheds or rooftops. Municipal parks that feature little more than lawn can devote some space to community gardens, while more rigorous land-use planning regimes can protect market gardening near urban centres.




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Societies have faced significant food and health crises over the centuries. Now, though, we have almost real-time data on food production, stocks and supply chains. Would it not be sensible to strengthen local food systems that can complement our supermarkets and global networks?

If we don’t do this, the only lesson we will have learned from the coronavirus crisis is to start hoarding baked beans, toilet paper and hand sanitiser as soon as we first hear of a looming disaster.The Conversation

Kimberley Reis, Lecturer, School of Environment and Science, Griffith University, Griffith University; Cheryl Desha, Associate Professor, School of Engineering and Built Environment, and Director, Engagement (Industry), Griffith University, and Paul Burton, Professor of Urban Management & Planning and Director, Cities Research Institute, Griffith University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

While we wait for a coronavirus vaccine, eating well, exercising and managing stress can boost your immune system



Shutterstock

Julia J Rucklidge, University of Canterbury and Grant Schofield, Auckland University of Technology

Social distancing may remain necessary during the 18 months or more we’ll have to wait for a coronavirus vaccine.

This can feel like we have little control, but there are several evidence-based protective measures we can take in the interim to ensure we are as healthy as possible to fight off infection and prevent mental health problems that escalate with uncertainty and stress.




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Coronavirus and underlying medical conditions

There is recent evidence that some younger people suffer strokes after contracting the virus, but the majority of people who end up hospitalised, in intensive care or dying from COVID-19 have an underlying medical condition. One study showed 89% of those hospitalised in the US had at least one.

These underlying medical conditions include high blood pressure, high blood sugar (especially type 2 diabetes), excessive weight and lung conditions. An analysis of data from the UK National Health Service shows that of the first 2,204 COVID-19 patients admitted to intensive care units, 72.7% were either overweight or obese.

All of these health issues have been associated with our lifestyle including poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking, excessive alcohol and high stress.

It’s obvious we have created a society where being active, eating healthily, drinking less and keeping our stress under control is difficult. Perhaps it’s time to push back. This may be important for major conditions like heart disease and diabetes as well as the added threat we face from emerging infectious diseases.

One study shows only 12% of Americans are in optimal metabolic health, which means their blood pressure, blood glucose, weight and cholesterol are within a healthy range. This rate is likely similar in many Western countries.

There is now a body of evidence linking our unhealthy lifestyle with viral, especially respiratory diseases. High blood sugar reduces and impairs immune function. Excessive body fat is known to disrupt immune regulation and lead to chronic inflammation. Insulin resistance and pre-diabetes can delay and weaken the immune response to respiratory viruses.




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Improving immunity through lifestyle choices

If we are going to restrict and change our lifestyles for 12 to 18 months while we wait for a vaccine, and if we want to protect ourselves better now and in the future, we could address these lifestyle factors. They not only affect our recovery from viruses and respiratory infections, but are also the biggest cost to the quality of life in most countries.

Optimising the health of the nation must be at the forefront. And this is long overdue. There has been a substantial under-investment by most developed countries in preventive medicine to reduce chronic diseases and improve both longevity and quality of life through healthy lifestyles.

Healthy organisms are naturally resistant to infections. This is true in plants, animals and people. Maintaining optimal health is our best defences against a pandemic until a vaccine is available.

We identify three modifiable risk factors:

1. Diet

Research shows better nourished people are less likely to develop both mental and physical problems. Certain nutrients, such as vitamins C and D and zinc have been identified as essential for improving immunity across the lifespan. A better diet is associated with a lower chance of developing mental health problems in both children and adults. Low levels of specific nutrients, such as vitamin D, have been recognised as risk factors for COVID-19. These nutrients are easy (and cheap) to replenish.

What does it mean to be better nourished? Eating real whole foods – fruits and vegetables, nuts, legumes, fish and healthy fats and reducing the intake of ultra-processed foods.

2. Exercise

Being physically fit adds years to your life – and quality of life. High cardiorespiratory (lung and heart) fitness is also associated with less respiratory illness, and better survival from such illnesses.

How do you get fit? Set aside time and prioritise walking at a minimum, and more vigorous activity if possible, every day. Ideally, you would get outside and be with important others. The more the better, as long as you are not overdoing it for your individual fitness level.

3. Stress

Stress impairs our immunity. It disrupts the regulation of the cortisol response which can suppress immune function. Chronic stress can decrease the body’s lymphocytes (white blood cells that help fight off infection). The lower your lymphocyte count, the more at risk you are of catching a virus.

How do we lower stress? Meditation, yoga, mindfulness, cognitive-behaviour therapy, optimising sleep and eating well can all help in mitigating the negative impact of stress on our lives. Taking additional nutrients, such as the B vitamins, and the full breadth of minerals like magnesium, iron and zinc, during times of stress has a positive impact on overall stress levels.




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Modifying lifestyle factors won’t eliminate COVID-19 but it can reduce the risk of death and help people to recover. And these factors can be in our control if we and our governments take the initiative.The Conversation

Julia J Rucklidge, Professor of Psychology, University of Canterbury and Grant Schofield, Professor of Public Health and Director of the Human Potential Centre, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.