One of the issues discussed at the Karpacz Economic Forum was the changes in the Poles' dietary habits over the last 25 years and their impact on the health of Polish society. The discussion was moderated by Mr Arkadiusz Mierzwa, Communications and CSR Director at Jeronimo Martins Poland.

A report prepared by IPSOS for the Biedronka store chain indicates that Poles' awareness of nutrition issues has changed in recent years. On the one hand, Poles have opened up to new flavours, whereas on the other, they still value traditional recipes. Consumers have also begun to value the simplicity of a product's form and ingredients more than its flashy packaging. Customers are also more willing to read product labels, and they understand their content better than they used to.

Aware consumers still value flavour above anything else

In today's Poland, every second man and every third woman is overweight. "We believe that our diet is better than 25 years ago but this is not always the case. We find it difficult because of the pleasure associated with eating. While we are aware of how we should act and that we should eat healthier, 82% of us still claim that eating is a pleasure. As many as 75% of people respond that flavour is more important than the health aspects. We associate everything healthy with inferior taste", said Ms Patrycja Szymańska, Director of Qualitative Research Department at Ipsos.

"The caloric intake increases while the amount of exercise is in decline. This is related to the time we spend working. We are among the OECD's busiest nations, and as such, it is difficult for us to comply with the recommendations to cook at home", said Grzegorz Juszczyk, Director of the National Institute of Public Health. "Today's consumers feel lost despite having access to numerous recommendations and ample advice. "We live at a time when making decisions is more difficult. We are excited to see actions that help consumers make choices quickly", he added.

"Change is difficult. Our eating habits are deeply ingrained in each of us. For any change to take root, one needs knowledge and motivation. The use of salt shows just how much the manufacturers are afraid of changing the product composition and losing the flavour qualities. As a private label manufacturer, we have a real impact on this. It is up to us to decide how much salt and fat is in the products; what their composition is. For the past ten years, we have been changing our products' composition to make them more health-friendly. We select products that contain ingredients consumed in excess and progressively we reduce the content of such ingredients", said Justyna Szymani, Director of Quality Development and Private Brand Control at the Biedronka chain.

"Working as a chef is like being in a lab. With quality products, you do not need as much salt and fat, which are the primary flavour carriers. We try to find an equilibrium to ensure that there is as little salt and fat as possible. Yet the quality of the products that we, cooks, use to prepare dishes is also critical. If the initial product is not of good quality, you cannot attain a good final result", said Jakub Kuroń, a chef.

The panellists also discussed the main factors that have changed the eating habits of Poles over the past 25 years. One of them was the emergence of retail chains. This has provided consumers with easier access to better quality products and increased their awareness, including about foods from other regions of the world. Importantly, the growth of store chains has also facilitated access to special food products, including gluten- and lactose-free foods, which used to be available almost exclusively in speciality stores.

"Consumers used to value only the taste and price. However, other aspects have emerged over the years. Poles have begun paying much more attention to product composition. Nutritional value has become yet another selection criterion. We are now at the stage where we also take environmental and animal welfare aspects into account. At Biedronka, we strive to put our products on the right track and be an inspiration", said Justyna Szymani.

"When focusing on nutrition, we typically focus on solid foods, however, looking at the broader public health context, one can see a link between an increase in average body weight and the consumption of other high-calorie foods, some of which also contain alcohol. We are committed to ensuring that nutrition education covers this aspect as well. While we encourage everyone to consume as little alcohol as possible, we are perfectly aware of our cultural setting. You have to make informed choices," Mr Juszczyk remarked.

Arkadiusz Mierzwa pointed out that the IPSOS survey shows that the consumption of almost all products has increased over the years. "We eat and drink more of everything", said Ms Szymańska. "It takes significant self-restraint to defer pleasure, but it will result in a longer and healthier life", Mr Juszczyk added.

How to live healthier

The experts also shared advice on what one should do to eat healthier. "I would say: eat less and less often", said Ms Szymańska. "Exercise is certainly advisable. It is essential for burning calories. You should eat very healthy 75% of the time, leaving only 25% for treats", Mr Kuroń remarked.

"As consumers, we are confused about what is healthy. Many myths have emerged since the Internet has become our source of knowledge. We recommend using trusted sources. Read the labels, pay attention to product composition – that is something worth considering", said Ms Szymani. "You need to weigh yourself to see when you are becoming overweight. This is when a dietitian is in the best position to advise you and prevent the problem from becoming worse. Another issue is physical activity – let's get moving. Finally, let's not drink any extra calories. Try to choose products with no added sugars", Mr Juszczyk advised.

Developed in cooperation with Jeronimo Martins Poland.