Supermarkets must take share of blame for obesity

A recent survey by an Australian institution associated with the World Health Organisation blamed unhealthy diets leading to obesity on supermarkets. In many cities, these have become the major source of food for families - especially those in the middle class.

Of particular note in the survey is a Hong Kong supermarket chain which is said to be the worst offender in promoting what are labelled by the institution as "unhealthy" foods in its online store. These include a range of processed foods, soft drinks and alcoholic spirits. An author of the research was quoted as saying, "We believe the promotion of unhealthy foods by supermarkets could be a major barrier to halting the global obesity epidemic."

Luckily for us, Hong Kong is not as affected by obesity as many other developed economies - although previous studies have shown that the percentage of overweight children is on the rise, thanks partly to their craving for fast foods consumed with soft drinks. Most Hong Kong parents know what is best for their families when it comes to eating.

Cantonese food is predominantly vegetarian. In a typical dish like stir-fried beef the meat is there mainly to add to the taste of the greens.

Unlike many other cities in developed economies, supermarkets are not necessarily the major source of food for Hong Kong families. Many housewives in Hong Kong buy health foods and fresh produce, such as vegetables and meat, in the wet markets where prices are usually lower than supermarkets. Moreover, processed foods and ready-to-eat dinners - branded as unhealthy in the Australian study - have never been part of Hong Kong people's staple diet.

The findings of the Australian study show only part of the picture. It is unfair to blame the supermarkets for focusing on promoting so-called "unhealthy" foods instead of competing head-on with the wet-market vendors on price in selling "healthy" foods. After all, supermarkets have to achieve higher profit margins. People need to eat the right foods and maintain a healthy diet and lifestyle. This will ultimately ensure they do not become obese.

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